Justin Brown Takes a Fresh, Synthesizer-heavy Approach to Jazz Fusion on 'Nyeusi'
Drummer Justin Brown constructs 21st century fusion on Nyeusi using texture and density rather than precision and virtuosity.
29 June 2018
Drummer Justin Brown has made a new fusion recording that comes from a fresh, synthesizer-heavy angle. Based on rhythms and textures more than harmony and tricky, virtuosic melody, Nyeusi (the Swahili word for "black" or "dark") is a different kind of jazz fusion.
"Fusion" meant a few different things when it first appeared as a jazz genre between 1968 and 1980. Using rock and funk grooves to power improvisation took various forms, from the open jams of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew to the super-charged guitar fireworks of John McLaughlin, or from the intricate precision of Chick Corea's Return to Forever to the electronic symphonies of Weather Report. Eventually, the genre frayed into two equally problematic strands: fussily precise music that was the jazz equivalent of prog-rock, or soft-at-the-core smooth jazz that was little more than lite-funk elevator music. The word became poison. What once represented bold genre-blurring had become anodyne.
In recent years, the style has been reclaimed by younger musicians who come to the game without any of the old jazz politics. Using old tools (analog synthesizers, drums, vintage electric keyboards) and new ones (mainly, the sensibilities that hip-hop adds to the idea of textured exploration of grooves), they are finding the open spaces where rock and funk energy give way to creativity beyond formula. And the result is a new kind of fusion that sounds vintage and fresh at once.
Nyeusi embodies an eerie, messy freshness. This begins with the fact that the band is sonically complex and largely egoless. In addition to Brown's intense polyrhythmic drumming, there is Burniss Travis on bass, keyboardists Fabian Almazan (usually playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano) and Jason Lindner (typically playing an analog synth), and saxophonist Mark Shim, playing synth sounds through a wind controller. The result is a sonic canvas on which the electronic sounds blend seamlessly. Shim's synth sounds aren't obviously distinguishable from Lindner's, and Almazan's Rhodes is often processed through effects like a ring modulator that allow it, too, to hide in the flux of the sound.
"Lots For Nothin'", for example, begins with Brown's overwhelming flow of polyrhythms, and then in comes the band. Travis's bass is active on the bottom, often locked in with the bass drum and other times rippling with the melody. The melody up high in the sound may be Shim, but who knows? The other sounds are patterns and buzzing fills on a synthesizer, with Rhodes chords ringing percussively in a pattern. The rippling, clean melodic line dances along the top, but it doesn't run in mad bebop patterns or in sizzling 32nd-note runs. There's no sense that the performance is MELODY-SOLOS BY EACH BAND MEMBER-MELODY again.
One of the most effective pieces, "Entering Purgatory", uses a four-note motif that moves around and inverts but largely repeats over a stuttering drum pattern that seems to combine the complexity of Elvin Jones with the off-kilter feeling of a hip-hop groove. Eventually, a crazy improvisation crops up—possibly Almazan playing a detuned or ring-modulated Rhodes while the melodic spin of that motif continues. Brown joins the improvisation in the last 90 second or so, making the controlled chaos that much more exciting.
Brown's talents have been heard with bassist Thundercat and with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Here, on his debut recording, the 34-year-old drummer is not so much front and center as he is just central, dominating each track with an atmosphere, a world of motifs that define each track more than the melody.
The most conventional "jazz tune" here is surely "Waiting on Aubade", with a rhythm section introduction that gives way to a distinctive melody that seems to be played in harmony by Shim and Lindner. The theme develops into a more complexly orchestrated one, with some of the synth sounds bubbling up to the top, eventually leading to a Rhodes solo by Almazan, though even that moment is woven with reiterations of the theme by Shim and Lindner.
A distinctive feature of Nyeusi is having the longer performances, such as those above, alternate with shorter tone poems, often played as duets or solos. "Replenish", for example, is under three minutes long, forgoing any significant improvisation but setting out a lovely melody that is tracked only by Brown, overdubbing various synths above his drums. "Waiting (Dusk)" is a repetition of a single arpeggio that anticipates "Waiting on Aubade", but with a set of tinkling textures that whet your appetite. "At Peace (Dawn)" is nearly identical and follows "Aubade", creating a set of delicate bookends.
All of the major compositions on Nyeusi are by Brown, with the exception of "Circa 45", which was written by (drummer) Tony Williams for his 1971 fusion classic Ego. This version is faithful in tone and melody, giving the long section for a guitar solo over to flights of synthesizer that bend and leap over the slow, drunk lope of the song's atmosphere. Burniss, here as everywhere, plays a subtle role, never popping out of the mix like Jaco Pastorius but, rather, sounding like a low, round rubber band of a bassist, rising up in the mist like a wave at times, other times merely a current that pulls the band along.
There is also a sense, hearing the sweep of Nyeusi from beginning to end several times that Jason Lindner is a critical part of this sense of atmosphere. The last track, "Lindner's in Your Body!", features his buzzing sound sculptures, and it gives you a sense of the role he's likely playing throughout the album, filling all the spaces, acting as vinegar to Almazan's Fender Rhodes olive oil. Lindner is most famous for playing with Donny McCaslin in the David Bowie Backstar band. His range is incredible.
The challenge for this new kind of fusion may be that its strength—a collective music-making that takes away the foreground of a soul singer or lead guitarist or virtuoso improvisor—also makes it somewhat cloudy or vague. The tunes can blend into each other with their moody insistence on flow and texture. Like the color field paintings of Mark Rothko and others, the tracks on Nyeusi might seem too simple or too bland when being taken in at first. The differences are in the nuances at times, or with no clear subject (no striking melody or dramatic harmonic shifts) the audience might be right in finding a lack of focus. It takes some careful listening.
But the template here for how electronics can create a new kind of improvised music is impressive. Rather than using synthesizers like they were new-era trumpets or super-charged versions of Bud Powell's right hand, Justin Brown and his bandmates are using these tools in native ways, finding their unique, particular strengths in creating fresh sounds at the moment. Brown's drum kit is melodic, and his bandmate's non-drums are all rhythmic and textural. In the center, they meet, making something new.