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Justin Faulkner: Serving the Music


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The rare balance of passionate ambition and mature dedication that are the hallmark of young professionals puts them in a category all their own. More often than not they began honing their skills at an early age and it seems as if life conspired to help them succeed. Justin Faulkner, the young drummer for the legendary Branford Marsalis's band, has a story that fits this description to a T.

At 23 years of age, it's remarkable how many achievements he has under his belt. Yet one of the first things one notices upon talking to him is how humble and genuine he is. Whether he's expressing gratitude towards the many people and experiences that led him to where he is or excitedly discussing one of his favorite drummers or records, his honesty is refreshing. I was fortunate enough to get to ask him a few questions about his background and some of the things that reveal who he is as a musician.

Faulkner was born in Trenton, New Jersey, but as he puts it: "I was there for all of five seconds. I'm from Philadelphia." His affinity for music emerged while he was still a toddler. "Well, I started banging around the house with pots and pans and spoons at the age of three and destroyed several kitchen sets of my grandmother's. Then, around maybe six months to a year after, my mother bought me a drum that was made by the company Fisher Price, and I played on that and I beat that to death. She bought me my first kit when I was about, I'll say five-ish."

"I started taking formal lessons when I was about seven or eight. While I was still in elementary school, I was awarded a scholarship to the Settlement Music School, which is a private music school in Philadelphia. I started taking lessons there at age seven, and I think I was there from age seven to about age seventeen, for about ten years. I originally started playing gospel music. That was the first music that I kind of related to because that's what my parents listened to along with many other styles of music. I then started learning classical music; I was a classically trained drummer originally. I started playing classical percussion around age nine or ten, starting with the practice pad and getting the initial technique together. From there I played my first professional gig when I was thirteen."

This gig was an important opportunity for Faulkner, and though he doesn't frame it as such, it was a pretty heavy one. "[It was] with a bassist named Jamaaladeen Tacuma. He's a psychedelic, jazz, funk bassist. He played with Ornette Coleman's band prime time, and he has a band now with Vernon Reid from Living Color, and a drummer named Calvin Weston. They have a band named Free Form Funky Freaks. He's incredible. He kind of established the idea of groove for me because that was a foreign thing. I was used to people letting me play whatever my heart desired rather than keeping some type of beat for everyone to dance to. I played with him every Friday for about a year and a half at a place called Cafe Harlem. It was located in the Eden borough, which is like right outside of Philadelphia, maybe 10 minutes away. Then little things started to reveal themselves."

Faulkner's early experiences in music both indicated that he was going places and provided him with the opportunity to get there. "Like I said, I started taking lessons when I was 7 and then once I was in that particular music school, they could see that I kind of didn't want to play classical music and that my forte was drum set, so they transferred me to another teacher named Shan Rittenburg, who I studied with for the duration of my time at Settlement music school. It's odd, little gigs started coming here and there. My school band studied with Jimmy Heath; well, our quartet backed him up for the all Philadelphia Jazz festival."

The Philadelphia jazz scene was and is a very rich one, claiming as its own such legends as John Coltrane and Clifford Brown. Growing up musically there allowed Faulkner the opportunity to be steeped in tradition and learn about the music first hand. "I was playing with a lot of the older musicians of the Philadelphia scene. I met a guy named Bootsy Barnes, who was really influential for me; because of him I learned every Hank Mobley tune, every Lee Morgan tune and every Cedar Walton tune, because those are the tunes we would play. He would say, 'Hey, you know man, you gotta learn these tunes.' And I was looking at him, thinking, listen I will probably never play these again, and lo and behold, I'd go to jam sessions and everyone wants to play "Firm Roots," everyone wants to play "Roll Call." I was like, well, looks like this paid off."

"I was playing with them between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. They would call me to play little banquets, or some gigs actually. We would play little small jazz series within the tri-state area. When I was 15 I met Orrin Evans and I was working with him through the settlement music school. He was one of the directors of the jazz program there. I guess he saw something (laughing). I'm gonna just assume that's what it was. He saw something that he liked in my playing. He had a weekly jam session that he would play and he asked me to do a lot of them. I did the majority of them for about a year and a half before it was no longer a factor at that particular club."

"During the time of me playing the jam sessions, Eric Revis came and played one of the sessions with us, because he was also playing at Orrin Evans' yearly birthday party that he does at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, which was like one of the most prestigious jazz clubs in Philadelphia, it's where everyone used to go to after their show, they'd go over there for the late night set, because there's a really great jazz drummer named Mickey Roker who played with the Modern Jazz quartet and Lee Morgan and a bunch of people."

"He was playing a jam session with a bassist named Mike Bloomfield who was very influential as well, and a pianist named Ted Simmons, R.I.P., he passed away a few years ago, and that was the house band. That was like the learning ground for everyone. Everyone feared the stage because they knew that you could go on stage and just play anything."

"Also around that time, I was in a group called the Kimmel center youth jazz ensemble. There's a huge performing art center called the Kimmel center, there in Philadelphia and they had a big jazz program that was incredible, it was headed by Mark Johnson, who was probably one of the greatest educators that I could have been mentored by, he completely changed my thought process, and like how to approach music and he actually taught me how to read Jazz charts as well."

"I started playing in a few of his groups that he (Evans) would put together and recorded a DVD with him, and actually I went on my first tour with him and a vocalist named JD Walter. JD's based out of New York; he's a great vocalist. He deals with a lot of electronic pedals and loopers with the voice and it's really cool, really, really interesting. My first tour was with them two. We played at the Jazz Bakery before it was closed down, and then we played at this, it's like a jazz series, I think it's something, like the dynamite box, it's in half moon bay California. We also played the Kharkiv jazz festival, in Ukraine, which was my first overseas experience. Then shortly after, I met Branford Marsalis."

The pivotal moment in Faulkner's career could very possibly be traced to this first meeting, and Marsalis, like many before him, seemed to see something in the young drummer. "I met him at a master class at my school. We were part of this series called the Francis Johnson Project, which was basically talking about primitive instruments, from the early...I guess....I don't remember exactly a time frame, because to be honest we were in high school so we were kind of spaced out and not really into what was going on. We were just there because we had to be."

"After a while, after things went through a history of brass instruments, they started talking about chamber ensembles, which was always something that was interesting to me, percussion ensembles, string quartets and so forth. Then he started to explain how jazz correlated to the idea of chamber ensembles, and saying that you can have many of them, quartets, trios, septets and so forth. And so he says I'm going to bring in my cousin next weekend and he's going to do a master class. And the gentleman that ran the program, his name was Rodney Mack, happens to be one of Branford's cousins." "So Branford came in, and my high school jazz band played, and he ripped us a part. It was just....it was bad. We didn't sound really good, but we were all really cocky in a way, because we were probably one of the best jazz bands in Philadelphia, in terms of the schools, or so we thought. So he came up to us and he basically said, 'None of you listen to jazz. None of you. You don't listen to jazz at all. This doesn't sound like jazz. You're reading.' He just dissected each person's individual problems, and then he got to me and he said, 'Yeah, except you. You, I don't know what you've been doing, but you need to keep doing that.' I'm like, wow, uh, ok. I didn't expect it at all."

"What ended up happening, three or four months later, Branford called his cousin to get my phone number, his cousin called my school, and my school gave him my house number, and I was actually out at a gig and he contacted my grandmother. My grandmother had written on a sheet of paper 'Branford Marsalis,' and I'm looking at this and thinking, oh she must have been watching TV or something. So then, I looked at it, and I said, grandma, who is Branford Marsalis? I mean I know the name, but why do you have it? She said, 'by the way, he called, and he wants you to play a gig with him.' I'm like, yeah, ok. Yeah, right. She says,' no seriously, I spoke to him on the phone tonight.' So I'm trying to figure out whether she is serious or if she's joking, and then the grandmotherly, you need to pay attention to me voice came on and I said, oh wait, she's serious. I ran out the house and did a couple of laps around my street. It was an amazing thing that happened to me, and I just came from a great gig as well, so it was really a surprise."

"I did the gig in November, we played in San Antonio Texas at Trinity University, and it was good because I had already known Eric Revis because him and Orrin Evans are best friends. So I played the gig, and I did pretty poorly, actually. I completely bombed one of the songs; it's called "in the crease," which happens to be like the drum feature for the band now. So, he stopped the song in the middle of the show and he said 'Alright, better luck next time,' because he had given me this whole preface, explaining how I wanted to play the song, and how the guys in his band messed up the song during a recording session. At the time I'm thinking, 'well, I'm here, so I must be able to play it,' and it kind of backfired on me."

"So, maybe a year and a half went by, and Branford asked me to sub again for Jeff Tain Watts. I think our first gig was at Jazz Alley in Seattle. I got into town I think a day or two ahead of time, and once I got in, Branford called me down. Well, Branford sent his road manager to call me, so Rod called me and said,' Branford wants to see you for a minute, so you can just go down to his room.' I forget his room number, I think it was like the governor's suite. So I go down there, and I knock on the door, and (laughs), the thing is Branford thought that I was scared, and actually I kinda was. I was very nervous; I didn't want to go down there. So he says to Rod, 'tell him to come down here or I'm sending him home.'"

"So he hears a knock, 'Mr. Marsalis it's me,' and he says 'Come in.' So I go in, and it's completely intimidating; I see his sax case, and he has this huge like executive desk. I'm like, 'ok, this is really like...oh, no. Alright.' So then he comes over to me, 'So, this is the thing man. Jeff Tain Watts is leaving the band and he's going to play his own music in his group, and the guys and I were talking and we wanted to know if you wanted to be the drummer.' I was like (laughing), What? It was like, ok; this is all a joke, ha ha ha. You know, Jamie Kennedy experiment, come out. I'm being punked. Come on, this is cool. But yeah, he was serious. Then the next day was my 18th birthday and that was the first gig. Every birthday since then I've actually been on the road, which has been great. Part of it sucks, because I'd like to be home with my family. But, performing at the Sydney Opera house on your birthday isn't exactly a bad thing. So, I'm not complaining."

Faulkner's demeanor and playing exude a maturity that belie his age. I asked him about his approach to playing with different people, and his answer brought to light a rich philosophy that gave insight into how music is made on a very high level. "It's actually really simple. The guys that I've been fortunate enough to play with in Branford's band, one of their main... I don't even want to call it a concept, it's almost like a way of life, is playing music. So playing the music, not allowing self to come into the equation so that it's about you and you showing who you are. That's going to come out naturally because music doesn't lie. You can try to hide whatever it is that you want to hide, but it's going to come out eventually."

"For me, I just try to come from under the music. If people are giving me new music that I've never played before, it is not my job to solo over it and show everyone how great this lick is or how I can play over the bar-line, because after a while those ideas get you un-hired for most gigs. To be honest with you, I love music, I really love music; I want each piece of music that I'm given to sound like a song, so I just try to approach it as if I'm playing a song and I try to make everything as cohesive as possible by communicating with the other people, seeing what they're doing, trying to figure out my surroundings. I also try to figure out the melody of the song. That's the most important thing for me. Even if the melody is complex, finding key points in the melody that need to be brought out in some way shape or form, whether I'm hitting the bell of a cymbal or I'm playing a break, whatever the case may be. Trying to find out what I can do to make this song sound like a song, rather than sound like a bunch of notes on a piece of paper."

Wondering about how these abstract concepts manifest themselves in playing situations, I asked Faulkner about his thought process while playing. How conscious are his orchestration decisions, and where does he get his inspired ideas? "To be honest with you, half the time I don't really know, it's just in the moment. It's whatever that particular situation calls for. I used to hate flat rides, I despised flat rides, and that was because I had never played on one that I liked. Then I was a given a flat ride that Roy Haynes designed, and it's incredible. It was needed because I was playing in a guitar trio, so I had to use it. But, I had to listen to some records where cats were playing flat rides. Some Roy Haynes records, some Elvin Jones records, matter of fact there's an Elvin Jones record where he's playing with Bill Frisell and Dave Holland. It's a song called "Blues Dream," and he's playing on the flat ride and it sounds incredible. So I'm like, well if Elvin can do it, I need to figure out a way to make this ok."

"Textures for me, they're not something that I can think about. Initially when I'm playing, it's about making the situation work. Eric Revis and Branford always talk about how Kenny Kirkland was able to separate himself from himself in order to see what was needed to make the song sound good; I'm talking about in time. He would be comping behind Branford and he'd say, 'Ok, what's happening here? AH! Ok, I need to occupy this area of the piano; ok this harmony needs to be this.' He would instantly switch to whatever was needed. I'm trying to learn how to be in the moment and allow the song and that particular situation to dictate what it is that I need to do. That's kind of been my philosophy that I'm trying to actually learn, for I guess the last 5 or 6 years that I've been playing with these bands regularly."

In addition to, or maybe because of, his maturity, Faulkner is very humble. When asked about his maturity he quickly downplays it, crediting his faith and upbringing. "I'm a Christian, so a large part of it is me having a spiritual background that allows me to learn from everyone that I'm surrounded by. The idea of being humble is one thing, but really realizing that you have so many great individuals around you that have so much information that is vital to your existence as a musician, as a human being... for me it was like I just felt there were many doors that were open because of the blessings that I've been given. For me to sit here and not take advantage of these opportunities would be selfish of me because there are many people who are willing to be in my shoes, willing to play with these people and willing to just be a fly on the wall for some of the conversations that they're having. I'm truly just blessed to be around guys like Branford and to be able to call guys like these gentleman my friends and my mentors and my brothers. They've looked out for me on numerous occasions. I mean musically and just advice; we talk all the time. Even if it's just a 'hey, what's happening,' or we send a hello through someone, we're always looking out for each other."

"With that being said, I feel like it was something that always felt natural to me, to be around older people. To be around more mature individuals that kind of had things together... or seemed that way (laughs). I felt like in order to do anything, the only way I can figure it out is by talking to someone who is older than me or more mature who has been through it. Like one of my closest friends right now and one of my biggest mentors, is a 92 year old man that lives 2 doors down from me. He's hung out with Nat King Cole, he's hung out with Count Basie, he's hung out with a ton of people. He's been to almost every Newport Jazz festival there is. He saw Ahmad Jamal play. There's a bootleg Ahmad Jamal live at Newport and from the stories that he tells me, he was there."

"I was very fortunate to be around the drummer Bernard Purdie; he calls himself my Godfather and he adopted me as his nephew. As a matter of fact, he gave me one of my first drum sets and early cymbals. Him and, so the song "Cousin Mary," that John Coltrane wrote, her and Bernard Purdie gave me a set of cymbals and a drum set, that I still have, when I was 15. To have people like them in my life, constantly pouring out advice, that I may not understand then but that will definitely apply later, that's stuff that's priceless. It's my duty to try to soak up at least like 1% of what they've given me, because it's so much. So this idea of being mature, I mean I understand it, but it's really just about me being grateful for the experiences that I have and trying to use the information that I'm being given to create the best music that's humanly possible."

On the subject of mentors and inspirations, I asked Faulkner about some of his favorite drummers; his love of music shone through clearly here. Chief among the list is Vernel Fournier, drummer for Ahmad Jamal's trio. "He's like the greatest drummer that could have ever existed. I didn't know about him until I met, well actually there was a drum teacher at Berklee named Bob Tomani, who introduced me to live at the Pershing, where of course they play the famous Poinciana. I had heard him on the radio and never really paid much attention to it. Then we actually had to emulate what Vernell Fournier was playing and I found out who he was through a jazz stylings 101 class at a summer camp. When I joined Branford's band, I was given like gigabytes and gigabytes of music and they said, 'Ok, now that you're in here, you suck. You need to learn how to play, so here.' And it was funny because it was just like ok, yes, cool you're 18 and you play with us, but now you're going to learn how to play with us. Because right now you're just playing a bunch of stuff that sounds cool to you."

"Yeah, Branford and the guys introduced me to Ahmad Jamal. I look for sophistication, I look for beauty and I look for elegance, and that music embodies all of that. It's just in the pocket, all the time. It's like when you're listening to Jimmy Cobb switches cymbals, it is just some of the baddest.... (laughs) it's so well thought out. It's just like, ok, we've been on this cymbal for a while, ah, we should change the color because we're going to an instrument with a different texture. Ok, here we go... Pow! It's like, really? All you did was moved your hand over a few inches. Goodness. Ok. But, yeah, Jimmy Cobb was definitely an early influence and I didn't even know who he was."

"Elvin Jones. I didn't know that drums could be played like that. My first encounter with him was actually a video, and he was playing a drum solo in this movie called Zacariah. I'm looking and I didn't really get it, I'm just like, ok, he's playing a lot of stuff, ok, that's cool. Then, there's a video of Elvin and he's just talking about his experiences, and who he played with and his band was practicing, I think the song is called "3 card Molly," and it was insane. He was talking about how he hears melodies, and how he feels like certain notes are certain colors or certain emotions are certain colors, and I didn't understand it, but it was like wow this must be deep because it's coming from Elvin Jones. Now that I watched the video over again, it's like, wow, these are actually some of the most well thought out explanations I've ever heard."

"Art Blakey, simply because I'm surrounded by Jazz Messenger Alumni. Everyone is saying, "you have to check out Buhaina." I was like, uh, I don't know who that is. "You don't know who the Buhaina is?!" I mean Bobby Watson's like "Ok, listen, you need to learn about the Buhaina." and I'm like ok, I don't know who this is. Charleston Rowe, who is another mentor of mine, would say, "Yeah man, the Buhaina man, he used to do this thing..." Actually, I have one of Art Blakey's crash cymbals that was given to me by Charles Tenbrow, when he passed away about 3 years ago. I mean yeah, Art Blakey is just a driving force. It's like a tractor trailer that's going to run you over if you don't get out of the way. It's like when he hits one, ok, that's one at all times. I don't care where you are. This is, pow!, it. So yeah, Blakey is insane."

"Billy Higgins. I could go on for hours, there's many guys. I just recently was turned on to a steve lacy record called Evidence (OJC 1991). It's a piano-less quartet and Billy Higgins is comping; it's just insane. I didn't get it, again, at first. I listened to it, and it's like, ok, Billy Higgins is swinging. To be honest with you, I'm still trying to understand where he gets these ideas from. I guess it comes from playing with all the people that he plays with and just knowing piano players and the way they play and listening to their phrasing when they're comping. Also just him being a bad individual period. That has a great deal to do with it."

Although he received the most important lessons on the bandstand, Faulkner has extensive formal music training. He attended music schools from the time he was in grade school until he graduated from Berklee college of music. "I went to school called GAMP, Gerard Academic Music Program. I went there for middle school and high school, and I studied voice, classical percussion and drum set, and then cello for like a month (laughs). That was a great place because I definitely think that me having a background in choral music and a piece of a background in some operatic studies, not much, has a lot to do with my ability to play the way the way that I do. Just to hear melodies and try to find the lyrical aspects of the melody, understanding what a melody is supposed to sound like. Understanding why this song has a horrible melody, or what you can do to make a bad melody sound good; just understanding the idea of melody came from me being in a choir from 5th grade to 12th grade." "It was a really good experience there, and then from there I graduated high school and went to Berklee, and Berklee was.... interesting. It was very interesting because I had a lot of teachers that I was very close with, just through prior situations, I mean Terri Lyne Carrington actually met me when I was 16. Her and I were both playing with a vocalist from Toronto, Canada named Kate Shud. Terri Lyne played on her record and I did a lot of the live dates because she used to play every week in Philadelphia because she lived in Toronto. She would fly me to Toronto and I would do a lot of the gigs but Terri Lyne laid down the foundation for all of the songs I was playing. Her and the pianist I was playing with, Orrin Evans, was also on the record. They recommended me to Terri Lyne to be in the 5 week summer camp that they had. They also recommended me to be in the jazz workshop, which was a program that Terri Lyne and a saxophone player named Rick DiMuzio run every summer."

"A plus side to being around Terri Lyne in the ensembles was that she was my Drum teacher for 5 weeks, so it was really great and we became really cool and she basically told me everything that I did wrong, which was everything that I needed. I was so used to people saying 'oh yeah, you sound great, da da da da da,' all of that. She just completely said, 'ok so you have gigs, I know that you've done the gig with Branford, that's nice, so let's talk about what you can't do,' and then we just approached some different things that she gave me: some different ways of approaching time signatures, different ways of approaching swing, from a technical standpoint, how to hit the ride cymbal, where to hit the ride cymbal. She really touched on a lot of great things, and through that program I auditioned for Berklee and was awarded a full tuition scholarship to the school."

"I went there and was awarded the presidential scholarship, and I studied with Ralph Peterson and.... another drum teacher that I kinda don't remember.... that's not good. I actually only had a few lessons with him then I was on the road for the majority of that semester. But Ralph Peterson was great because it was almost like learning everything that I wanted to learn about Art Blakey. He's one of the only guys that can really play that stuff because he was Art Blakey's protoge. He was around him all the time."

"Ralph taught me a lot; my drum set up comes from Ralph. The way I position my toms...it's not always that but Ralph has an amazing way of setting the drums up that makes so much sense, and it saved my back actually because I used to lean over a little bit and I wasn't sitting correctly and Ralph completely changed that and he turned me on to some drumsticks that I needed to use. He was just a great overall teacher and mentor, and I still talk to him and he's always asking me, 'so, have you learned of the ritual?' He's very straightforward, to the punch, and then on top of that he's also like a 3rd or 4th degree black belt. He's in the Tae Kwan Do hall of fame for most dedicated student, and it's true. He's incredible."

"Then another influential teacher was Darren Barrett. He's a really great trumpet player and he taught me the idea of self restraint, of basically not showing every single lick that you have and not getting to a point in the solo where you have to have the explosions. In the ensemble he basically had a lot of the better musicians in the school and me, for some reason, and we all played together. It was great because I'm great friends with them now; I see them all the time in New York and we all hang out. The thing is we built a relationship based on the fact that we all knew each other's capabilities and the fact that we were unable to express the full extent of our capabilities. We were all kind of frustrated, so that kind of brought us together because it was like, 'How can we create this tension? How can we create music and not get to that point but almost get there an pass it off to someone else?'"

"He also taught us the idea of trust on the bandstand. You have to be so in tune to what's going on if you're going to be passing the torch to someone else on the stage, and if you're not then it doesn't work. You have to hear what's going on. You have to feel what's going on. You have to be a part of the music 100%. You have to give yourself completely; it's about compete surrender, and that changed my entire mentality about playing music because I was used to just playing swing and just plowing through the music or at least attempting to. He made me step back for a bit and alter my thought process, which was definitely needed. Those two along with Terri Lyne, those were the most influential teachers I had while I was at Berklee."

Faulkner obviously learned a lot from the many people that he's worked with over the years, and he clearly showed natural talent from a young age. However, one thing that comes across clearly above all else, both when speaking to him and listening to him play, is his deep love for music. "I just love the fact that, how can I put it, music is not a device or a vehicle that can be used to get your rocks off. I mean people do use it for that purpose, but music is at its best when people are being honest and all egos are out the door. Negative aspects of the ego, that is. Music is something that can truly get you through the worst times in your life. If you're depressed, I've heard people say that music kind of cooled that whole period of their life out. If there's anything going on, music is something that is able to change a person."

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