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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.

I was also thinking about covering other jazz musicians' tunes. There are a lot of compositions that I really admire, ones that I have always been listening to. I mean, the only way a song becomes a standard is by a whole bunch of people playing it. Wayne Shorter wrote a whole bunch of tunes in the '60s, and a lot of people started playing his tunes. And it's like, I wonder why we don't do that as much anymore? There is the standards book that everyone plays from, and then everybody plays their own tunes.

So yeah, those are a few things I would always like to have added as part of the repertoire.



AAJ: Your style is very traditional and contemporary, but your original compositions show hints of a more modern approach, especially with arrangements like "Lucid Thoughts."

JK: [My style is] a hodge-podge, I guess. I would say—as far as what I write and how I try to play it, I don't really think in categories.

I never know what might come out any given day. I listen to a lot of stuff, and I am usually surprised at what actually comes through in my playing. I will go a long time without listening to somebody, and then a month later something will come out in my playing that is from them. And it's like, where did that come from?

That is a good way to have it; it's more organic, and whatever comes will come. I would say there are no boundaries that I lay for myself, as far as what I might get into in the future. It all depends on what I am into at the time. I am obviously influenced mostly by traditional acts; my go-to people are usually Mulgrew Miller, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, as far as piano players are concerned. It is definitely in the traditional vein, but that is not to say that I don't check out a lot of different stuff.

I am actually a big fan of Brad Mehldau's work with Jon Brion. I really dig that whole idea. It is just so sonically cool.

Who knows, you know? [Laughs]. Music is music, I guess.

AAJ: Jazz arrangements of hymns such as "Be Thou My Vision" seem to be uncustomary. Is this something you wish to exercise more? Does your faith play a large role in your musical decision-making?

JK: Yeah, it does. Like I said, the first of this album wasn't really planned; things just sort of came together, I guess. And those things just kind of rose to the top.

As far as faith is concerned, it is pretty integral for me. It is all pretty interconnected. I want to become a better musician, obviously: we always strive to be better musicians, even though we will never reach that point—at least I know I will never reach that point— where we'll say, "Man, I'm perfect." There is always room for improvement. You will always be approaching perfection, but you can never get there. And it's the same with life in general, just growing as a person. I guess I like them to be interconnected.

My faith life is the same as well; I am trying to grow spiritually. It only makes sense to have music be an extension of that. Because [my faith] is something that is so important to me, it is something that I want to show in my music, whether it is blatant with the songs that I choose or just in the spirit that I play the music in.

I am actually developing the ideas for my next project, and that is going to be pretty much exclusively a faith/spiritual-driven album. The theme, I guess. The one thing I wish I could have had a little more of for the first album was a central theme. So that is definitely what I want to revolve around. I am doing some digging right now for some more hymns that resonate with me, as well as writing tunes that are specifically based on my own spirituality and my own faith.

Definitely big stuff. [Laughs]. For me, at least.

AAJ: How did you feel about your first full-length recording project? Did you learn from anything? Anything that you might have done differently?

JK: Oh yeah, there are a lot of things I learned [laughs]. Like I said, we pretty much just jumped in. My mom actually ended up helping out a lot. Me being blind, it is hard for me to deal with some of the logistics, so she stepped in and helped take care of a lot of things.

It was basically like going back to school. Dealing with the business aspect of it, I had no idea what I was getting into as far what to do after the CD was done. I was like, "Okay, I recorded it; that's that." But no way, man. After that is when the work starts. We didn't even know that we had to register with the jazz radio and Billboard charts. That is something that matters when you are trying to get radio airplay. We really just went from the ground up as far as building contacts in the radio industry and getting [the album] played. We basically did it on a personal level; we shipped it to the DJ, and if they wanted to play it they could. It actually went pretty well, but now we've learned a lot of things. I think, for the second CD, we will know what we're doing. So we will basically just have to go down the checklist of, "okay, we did this, we did that," and so on.

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