Justin Brown – Nyeusi – [TrackList follows] – Biophilia BREP0012, 40:24 [6/29/18] ****:
Drummer Justin Brown and the Biophilia label are a seamless partnership. Brown’s debut as a leader, the 40-minute Nyeusi is a hybrid of fusion jazz, electronic sounds, hip-hop/electronica rhythms, and more. Biophilia’s releases are hybrid as well. The label’s double-sided, 20-panel, origami-inspired paper packages are prized by music buyers… inside there are no physical CDs, only a download code to high-quality digital files: the perfect match of consumerism and environmentally-friendly containers.
Brown has been around the jazz scene for a while. He put aside a full-ride to The Juilliard School to tour with saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Later, he was in trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s band and joined up with pianist Gerald Clayton. Since 2014 he has backed genre-less bassist/vocalist Thundercat. Now it’s Brown’s time in the spotlight. But don’t think Nyeusi (Swahili for ‘dark’) is just a showcase for Brown’s percussive talents. This quintet release is a full band project and emphasizes musical dialogue and interaction. Brown (who also handles some keyboards) enlisted keyboardist and Biophilia label founder Fabian Almazan; keyboardist Jason Lindner (credits include bassist Avishai Cohen, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and Lindner was on David Bowie’s final album); Mark Shim (who switches from his typical tenor sax to an effects-driven wind controller); and bassist Burniss Earl Travis II (shortened to Burniss Travis for Nyeusi; his resumé includes Stefon Harris, Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton).
The 13 tracks (11 penned by Brown; one Tony Williams cover; and one solo cut by Travis) blend Brown’s polyrhythmic beats with a surfeit of keyboard and analog electronic sounds, and Travis’ elastic bass tones. Fender Rhodes electric piano intersperses with Moog synths; Wurlitzer electric piano commingles with Mellotron; and Shim’s ethereal wind controller is mixed with everything else. It’s never clear who plays what instrument as processing occasionally masks obvious keyboard/electronic stylings. The result is a sometimes-dense auditory panorama which is at times painterly, other times funky, frequently hearkens to 1970s fusion, and other times is ultramodern. Brown says, “It’s a jazz album, it’s a hip-hop album, it’s an instrumental album. You have to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and that’s what I hope for people to hear when they hear this album.”
The material is split between full-length pieces and briefer interludes which sometimes act as introductions or as postscripts. The record opens with two shorter cuts before the four-minute creation “Lots for Nothin’,” which starts with Brown’s fusillade of polyrhythm drumming. Travis’ dynamic bass rides the bottom end alongside Brown’s bass drum. The melody tends to stay in the higher register either via keyboards or Shim’s wind controller (it’s difficult to pinpoint exact instruments). There are also other musical outlines and fills which zip through the arrangement. The longest number, “Waiting for Aubade,” has a backdrop of nostalgia, melancholia and memory. English or music majors may know the term aubade as a morning love song or an expression which describes a human parting at daybreak. Aubade has been employed in classical music, dance and poetry. The shimmering “Waiting for Aubade” has a bit of a Weather Report influence, where a main theme gradually progresses via Joe Zawinul-esque keyboard sounds, while an intricate rhythm keeps things moving and shifting. One of the most distinctive tunes is the fusion-meets-dance amalgamation “Entering Purgatory.” A simplified refrain is modified and adjusted on top of a skittish drum pattern which combines a traditional jazz beat with a skewed hip-hop groove. The melody nearly swirls out of control but there is a sense of meticulous choices which keeps “Entering Purgatory” from becoming wholly anarchic. Two other standouts are the funk-fest “FYFO” and the sole cover, Tony William’s “Circa 45.” Hip-hop inspiration as well as 1970s-era fusion can be heard on “FYFO,” (the title probably either refers to facial recognition software or a UK-based clothing line) which contains a plethora of analog keyboards. Brown doesn’t stray too far from Williams’ original arrangement of “Circa 45” (which is from Williams’ 1971 LP Ego). Williams’ spacy introduction and outro are changed to fill the entire arrangement. Brown decelerates the pacing and rhythm, jettisons the jazz-rock guitar pyrotechnics and decided to apply a less intense keyboard improvisation. The album concludes with the thirty-second “Burniss,” which is a beautiful Travis bass solo; and the hard-hitting “Lindner’s in Your Body!,” which whirrs and jolts with bouncing keyboard notes, a neo-dance beat and eerie, vocal-like din. Nyeusi is not a standard jazz project. Where other musicians use synthesizers and other digital or analog keyboards as if they are replacing a horn or guitar, Brown and his band members utilize these instruments in a more natural approach, displaying the instruments’ assets in compositional ways, and in the process manufacturing a fresh viewpoint on the tired idea of ‘fusion.’
Justin Brown – producer, drums, percussion, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron (track 1), Juno 9 (track 9), Prophet 13 (track 9), Moog (track 9), Yamaha DX 7 (track 10), handclaps (track 10); Fabian Almazan – Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, MoPho, Mellotron (tracks 5, 7); Jason Lindner – Moog synth, MoPho, Prophet, Schoenhut piano (tracks 7-8); Mark Shim – wind controller; Burniss Travis – bass; Morgan Guerin, Jesse Fischer – handclaps (track 10)
Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot
Lesson 1: DANCE
Lots for Nothin’
Waiting for Aubade
At Peace (Dawn)
Lesson 2: PLAY
Lindner’s in Your Body!
Links to more info and tracks: