Justin Faulkner: Serving the Music

Paul Naser By

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"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 Vernell 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."
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