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Justin Kauflin: Humble Beginnings

Marshall Taylor By

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If there is one thing I want to resonate, it is my spirituality. That is something extremely important to me in my own life and something that I want to share: music, whether you are religious or not, is a spiritual experience.
The beauty of music lies in its subliminal spirituality. Religious or not, few can argue the effects of music on the human emotions and how it impacts our perception of things beyond what is skin-deep.

For 24 year-old Justin Kauflin, a New York-based pianist notable for his work with Jae Sinnett, and for his freshman release of Introducing Justin Kauflin (Self Produced, 2010), the interconnection of music and faith is not only a sure conversation-starter, but also a great indicator of the young musician's sincere humility.

From being blind and independent in the Big City to the growing pains of taking a record from concept to product, Kauflin counts his blessings by taking it one step at a time—both in his musical career and life in general—in what has undoubtedly been a humble beginning.

All About Jazz: How did you go about collecting the tunes for your first album, Introducing Justin Kauflin ? Was there a particular theme?

Justin Kauflin: No. When I decided to record the album, I had some general idea of what I wanted the album to sound like. Before we recorded, we had a good number of tunes on the list, around 20 or so; we had tunes written by myself as well as others written by band mates and various other artists.

We went into the studio for a couple days, and I think it really started to come together as I listened to the takes. I found the material that melded in some way, and it ended up centering around some sort of theme. That is kind of why I decided to title [the album] Introducing [Justin Kauflin]: there were a lot of things I wanted to incorporate into it, so it wasn't really theme-based, I would say.

AAJ: How does the writing process work for you? Do you have any tricks when developing a composition?

JK: [Laughs] Not really; it is just a long, painful process for me. I am still just trying to come to terms with my own writing process.

When practicing or just sitting at the piano, I always take time to develop sketch patterns. That is really how "Exodus" came to be; I remember it becoming an idea, and it just sort of came to me without too much work.

It really just comes in different ways. I guess that is what I have to realize: there is no one way for me to get my ideas out in a cohesive manner. It all just depends on the moment.

AAJ: Listening to the album, there are a lot of different time signatures, like five and seven.

JK: The past few years, for whatever reason, when I was in school, it was sort of the thing that everybody wanted to do. Everybody wanted to play the standards in odd times; it was "super cool." I'm sure that had somewhat of an influence, but to be honest, when I'm fleshing out ideas for songs, certain times just feel really good to me, five especially.

In "A Day in the Life," for instance, there's one part where I split [the 5/4 bar] in half, so it is like two groups of five eighth notes. I just love that rhythm, and it comes out all the time. It wasn't an "Ahh, I want this to be in five," or "I want this to be in seven" kind of thing. It is really just about what feels good.

AAJ: What enticed you to do a rendition of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life"?

JK: Like a lot of people—to be honest—I got into The Beatles in high school. I had actually done that arrangement in high school, and I really chose that tune because it was just fun to play. We also did a cover of "Strawberry Fields"—which I had been performing a lot live—during the recording sessions, but it turned out to be a little long.

I am really just big into The Beatles, and I try to do the stuff that isn't always covered; everybody does "Norwegian Wood" and a lot do "Blackbird," so I was happy to do "A Day in the Life" because I hadn't really heard anybody else do it. I'm sure other people have done it, but it is not one of the more common Beatles covers, just like "Strawberry Fields."

Their stuff is just a lot of fun to play. Like a lot of people, you get an emotional attachment to these tunes, and you can't help but want to play them.

AAJ: Do you see more renditions of non-jazz tunes in the future?

JK: Yeah, probably. I wouldn't say I would make that the censor, but I think it is pretty important to do that.

It is a real shame that it seems almost odd to do that. [Pianist] Brad Mehldau seems like this special guy because he does a lot of covers: he does a lot of Radiohead, Nick Drake. He does a lot of that. But really, he is just doing what jazz musicians have always been doing. All of the standards are based on what was popular in the day, so it is kind of weird how it's this special thing when somebody does it.

I feel it should be the standard practice; we should always be doing it. It shouldn't be a marketable thing to play jazz renditions of the days' popular songs. So yeah, I would want to keep on doing that.

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