justin brown

            From the back of the hall, he looks like the dred-ed Hamid Drake without the hippie hat. The connection isn’t all distance and hair – they share a certain schizophrenic A.D.D. of beats and grooves, a kinetic, propulsive addiction to doing something new and different every second. Justin Brown is young, and the four times he has played in the area over the past year, he has grown like the Hulk, from clever, promising citizen to a bulging tirade of frightening potential.

            Kenny Garrett shows almost always have these glorious, long fist-fights with the drummer when it seems all else is pushed to the side and KG faces down his (usually young) drummer and begs him for more rhythm. The nightly challenge seems to have long term effects and the drummers coming out of his band always seem more creative, complete and inventively busy: Tain, Brian Blade, Chris Dave, Jamire Williams have all been there; Justin Brown is the latest.

            A year ago, Kenny Garrett showed up in town with a new band of young players, looking for some funk crossover of KG’s blowout jazz. Often, the problem with stiff backbeats is just that, the amazing, flexible and unpredictable beats and rhythms of modern jazz are too tied down trying to bring the funk (or rock). Steve Coleman has found one exceptional solution to this. KG seems to be looking for another, one that is more gospel and blues based, earthier. With Cory Henry preachin’ from the B3, and an electric bassist scaffolding the tune, it was up to Justin Brown to find some variable drive that still funk’d. It didn’t entirely work, though there were moments.

            A little less that a year later, they came back to town with a sizable development. Whatever else happened in the months in between, Brown was absolutely bringing it now. The show began with a  soul-tinged tune, a long KG solo over a very basic 2/4 backbeat that slowly, 10 minutes in, began to unthread as the fringes of Brown’s beat splayed off, blurring the beat and swelling in complexity. It was the last of any steady beat the entire night. Songs again turned into wrestling matches between sax and drums, endless rhythms peeling out, steady fills and intensity that built to steep heights, and then buzz-sawed higher. There was a sense emanating from the drums – here was an inexhaustible supply of rhythms and ideas that could tumble forth forever. The year with KG had uncorked something, and you could feel that it was only the neck of a very deep bottle.

            In between the 2 Garrett shows, Brown showed up with Nicholas Payton’s band, filling in for Marcus Gilmore on very short notice. This was more of a jazz situation with the drum chair left to roam the uncharted maps of intricate and varied rhythm. He did so with surprising originality and fluidity – attaining some highpoint of listening and micro-phrased fills and beats behind Payton’s solo flurries and with Robert Glasper’s Rhodes and piano solos.

            Four months after the 2nd Garrett show, and the 4th time Brown has been in the area in the last 14 months, it all came together – the driving intensity and challenges of KG’s funk band and the jazz rhythms of Payton’s ensemble. Brown was here this time as part of Ambrose Akinmusire’s Group (a young modern band with Walter Smith III(ts), Fabian Almazon(p), Harash Raghavan(b)).  They had 45 minutes before Chris Potter’s Underground took over the stage and they filled it with an unbroken string of astounding music. Akinmusire’s trumpet is searing and brilliant, locking wonderfully with the modern harmonies of Smith’s tenor. Almazon drew open phrases sketching the piece while Raghavan held a beat to glue it all together. And for 45 minutes, Brown never repeated a single measure. There was no ride or high-hat rhythm to hold place, to make the song run on its track or stay within bounds. Instead, he just filled space, playing endless linked fills, soloing to the phrases of the other instruments, matching and interacting with the horns or piano, but in a steady, controlled solo style that never repeated, never settled into pattern. It was completely exhilarating. The energy and taste tumbling from Brown’s playing was overwhelming and inventive; it hurdled the music forward during the pensive modern harmonizing and phrasing of the tunes, and then sent it out on these sprawling journeys of sound. Piano solos turned into 3-way adventures, open landscapes where Brown responded to every note, continually changing the direction of the tune so the whole thing felt like an exploration of unmapped lands.

            When Chris Potter came on with the complex funk-ish drive of his Underground band, and the excellent drummer Nate Smith laying down thick beats with loud snaps of signpost 2/4, it was difficult, despite the excellence of the music, to not think of the newness and potential of what had just been witnessed. Justin Brown, it seems, has arrived.

Listen to the Ambrose Akinmusire Group with Justin Brown: part1 and part2.

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