Justin Faulkner: Serving the Music

Paul Naser By

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"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."

"I was listening to Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev today, and oddly enough I played the piece, maybe 7 or 8 times because I was in the youth orchestra when I was in High school. It was called the Philadelphia youth orchestra, again, that was definitely valuable to my playing simply because of the classical aspect of it and it required me learning melodies. My conductor would make us sing the melody to whatever song: 'What's the melody at bar 53?' You had to know it or else he screamed at you. Listening to that piece of music made me realize that, at times I look at music the wrong way. I'm looking at it thinking, this is what a good song is. Well....who am I to say a song's good or not? Yeah, some experiences and listening to records, all of that is great. If I don't like it I don't like it; that doesn't mean the person next to me doesn't find joy when they listen to it.

"The intro, which is the first track on the CD, is by the London symphony orchestra, and it's incredible. I was driving today and it came on and it completely just blew me away. I stopped. I pulled over for a second. I was like whoa, hold on. This is different. I'm not used to hearing this, and I'm not used to feeling that way. I don't know what it was but music can just take you out of your element and put you in a place that feels so good because you're not dealing with everyday problems. Branford said something to me, he said 'you know, man, our job is to give people a vacation from issues. They come to the concert, they're not here to think about 'oh well, ugh, my car is getting repo'd next week.' That's not what the concert is for. The people are here to enjoy themselves.' Entertainment and the fact that I'm able to do that by cooperating with the guys on stage and all of us having one goal, to create great music... it's amazing. It's absolutely amazing.

This love of music extends to his practicing, as well. I asked Faulkner what he has been working on lately. "Right now I'm working on getting better (laughs). I mean specifically, I'm actually doing a lot of endurance training on the drums. There's an old DCI exercise where you do a double stroke roll for about 30 to 60 seconds, and it's kind of painful because you're doing it at.... you can do it at any tempo, the faster the better. I'm doing it at about 100 bpm, which is not that fast, and I'm trying to slowly build my way up. Then I'm working out of this book called developing dexterity, and it's basically like quarter notes, and eighth notes and sixteenth notes. It's simple exercises: right, left, right, left, right, left. The problem is when I start playing it at half note equals 100 BPM, well then it gets interesting because it's ridiculously fast, and if you aren't ready yet you're hands will get tight on you and then the next thing you know, it's all over. Then for the rest of the day it's like, ok, I'm not gonna practice anymore."

"Then I'm working on sight reading all the time. Sight reading is vital for me; being able to look at a sheet of music and just go through it and be musical while I'm playing it. That's one of the goals for me. Playing a snare drum etude—it's easy if you're just play it from a rudimentary aspect, but for you to play it with expression and to pay attention to the dynamic markings and the accents and the this and the that, that takes time and it takes practice. Really Focusing on that is important for me right now. " "I'm practicing a lot of marimba, I'm playing the Bach cello suite. I'm still working on the first one because it's not easy for me. It's fun though, it's really a lot of fun. Scales, just to get my hands working on the instrument, and arpeggios and stroke control: making sure that each one of my strokes is even with both hands; making sure my left isn't weaker than my right; my right isn't weaker than my left and making sure that I can control each stroke rather than allowing the stick to fly wherever."

"I heard stories about Tony Williams sitting in front of the TV and just doing little tasks around the house, but he's sitting there hitting the ride cymbal, trying to almost be one with the cymbal. He was trying to know the cymbal inside and out, know the composition of the cymbal, to know what areas are best to play in and have a clear articulation whenever you hit the cymbal so your ride cymbal pattern can be felt and heard. I'm really trying to sit down and get my ride cymbal pattern together, because it's not good. I'm just trying to make sure that it's clear so whenever I'm playing with a bassist they don't have to ask me to feather the bass drum a little bit harder because the ride cymbal is lacking. Just making sure that that's the driving force behind the group, because that's the group. Especially in jazz that's where it's coming from. The ride cymbal is where it's at. So really trying to improve that is my main goal at this point, and I mean, it's going to take years. It's going to take the rest of my life to get it to where I really want it to be. Even then, you listen to a record with Elvin Jones and you think 'yeah, ok. Back to the drawing board' And it's great! It allows me to actually have something to look forward to, rather than...if we could all conquer the instrument in a day, what fun is that? You know? I wouldn't have it any other way."

Being only 23 with his entire career ahead of him, we have a lot to look forward to from Justin Faulkner. I asked him what was up next for him. Is he still leading his own group? "Yes, at this point my group just kind of changes due to availability of people. Also due to the frequency, well, infrequency, of gigs, simply because I'm out with Branford a lot. There are a lot of great things on the horizon. I'm playing with Branford; doing some things with Jacky Terrason; at the moment I don't have any Kurt Rosenwinkel dates in the books; I'm doing some things with local artists in Philadelphia which is great. I don't really get a chance to play home that often, so when I do I get to work with some really great people."
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