Justin Faulkner: Serving the Music

Paul Naser By

Sign in to view read count
"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."
About Justin Faulkner
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Jazz Near Philadelphia
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.