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Justin Faulkner: Serving the Music

Paul Naser By

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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."

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