A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Ben Wolf

When asked how the new year has been treating him so far, Justin Brown responds that he’s been focused on “feeling all of the good vibrations”.

This hasn’t stopped the drummer, who is among the most sought after artists of his generation, from staying on the grind. Since the beginning of the year, Justin has already been to France twice – first for performances with vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and then with pianist Tony Tixier – and has performed variously around the country with the likes of Chris Dingman, Gerald Clayton, and Gary Bartz. Somehow in the midst of this, he’s also found time to hang out with his family in the Bay Area and attend the NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA.

We’ve been featuring Justin’s bands at The Gallery with some degree of regularity since he first performed here as a leader just over a year ago. Justin has also appeared here as a sideman on innumerable occasions over the past several years. This week, we will be presenting Justin’s trio on Friday, as well as his quintet on Saturday.

Despite his busy schedule, Justin says he’s been really excited about this run of performances, explaining:

For some reason, The Gallery always keeps me inspired to write new stuff whenever I’m going to perform there, just because life experiences are always moving rapidly. It’s just always a cool place because, for one, the audience that comes there is always open to new music, and secondly, that’s what The Gallery supports.

I’m at a point now where, if I have these ideas musically and these things to say from the heart, then it needs to be out there. I’ve been shy lately about writing and letting people hear that, but if it’s given to you then it’s meant to be shared with the world. I feel like The Gallery is a place that’s always going to keep you fresh and allow you to be honest [as an artist]. Whenever a Gallery gig comes up, I try to take a few experiences from the past couple of months and connect something musically out of it.

Justin’s trio, which will perform on Friday, features the bassist Burniss Travis and the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the latter of whom Brown has performed with regularly since high school, including on Ambrose’s recent Blue Note Records debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening. When asked about his choice of personnel, Justin mentioned that the decision stemmed from the outcome of a session involving all three musicians a couple of years ago. When the fourth artist was late, Ambrose, Burniss, and Justin decided to get started without him, and the results were memorable enough that they agreed to perform together live one day. Justin added:

I’m an eclectic person. [When] writing for [just] those two, you can somehow hear [imagine] all of the other instrumentation. I just wanted to write something that was still me but at the same time face the challenge of conveying my true self within that instrumentation. But [Ambrose and Burniss] are my friends, and personally we connect, so there’s going to be something organic about it.

Saturday night’s performance will feature Justin’s quintet, which also includes Burniss, as well as pianist Fabian Almazan, reedist Ben Wendel, and guitarist Matt Stevens. Justin claims that this formation was the original setting that he had imagined for his own band, and has performed in a similar context in previous engagements at The Gallery. They plan to pick up where they’ve left off, continuing to explore the boundaries of Justin’s original compositions.

For Justin, with the new year comes a reminder of the power and purpose of music:

Because of these times and all of this stuff going on, people are looking for an outlet and [are ready] to relate to [a broad musical perspective], instead of putting a stamp on it. With this generation and our laptops, we truly have that power. I’m just trying to be honest about that and trying not to be shy about it.

Basically, this music is all about love, really. It’s ultimately about inspiring one that they can be themselves. We each have a purpose, and I just want people to realize that purpose within themselves, and be uplifted through my experiences with the music.