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Natural Phenomenon-Gracefully powerful and effortlessly swinging, 18-year-old drum prodigy Justin Faulkner is dropping jaws with the Branford Marsalis Quartet
Publication: Jazz Times
Author: Shaun Brady
During the last week of August, Justin Faulkner essentially bade farewell to Philadelphia by filling a familiar role-playing house drummer behind vibraphonist Tony Miceli for the weekly jam session at Chris’ Jazz Café.
Faulkner faced on disadvantage compared to most of the amateur timekeepers who took his place throughout the night: At only 18 years old, he couldn’t enjoy the hang with a drink at the bar. It must have come as a consolation, then, that he was the only musician in the room who’d begun the month on one of the music’s biggest stages, supporting one of its biggest acts: On Aug. 8, Faulkner took the main stage at George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival 55, with the rest of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.
While he’s already nabbed what for many would be a career-making gig, Faulker is now facing the same future as many of his peers: college. He recently began studying at Berklee College Of Music in Boston with Ralph Peterson Jr.
He may seem young-when Faulkner was born in 1991, his predecessor, Jeff “Tain” Watts has already been playing with Marsalis for almost three years-but Faulkner has been toiling away on his instrument for 15 years. The list of notables with whom he’s shared the stage includes Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Orrin Evans, Bootsie Barnes, the Mingus Big Band, Jimmy Heath, and Bobby McFerrin. He’s the drummer of choice for actor/singer Terrence Howard and was recently named one of five jazz drummers to watch by critic Ben Ratliff in the New York Times.
It all began when Faulkner spotted a drummer playing in a church band and found his calling. Forced to buy new pots and pans when the infant percussionist bashed his way through the set belonging to his grandmother, his mother brought home a toy drumset to channel that inspiration.
Lessons followed, at first through school and gradually through a variety of programs, culminating in years of study at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, whose program also mentored fellow prodigies Christian McBride, Jaleel Shaw, and Joey DeFrancesco. Faulkner credits the program with providing him a strong grounding in jazz’s history.
“Listening to jazz now is kind of depressing,” he said. “My friends sound wonderful, but some of them don’t really have the knowledge of swing. You can’t play jazz and not swing. It’s about being true to the art form rather than trying to be innovative. It’s like being an architect: If the person who designed this building hadn’t studied all of the architecture that preceded it, we’d probably be dead right now because the building would fall apart.”
There’s no doubt that Faulkner applies those lessons to his own playing. In any context he plays with a viorous sense of swing, surging with an exuberance too precisely musical to be attributed solely to youth. His heart-quickening pyrotechnics leave little question as to why Marsalis chose him to replace the powerhouse Watts.
“I was attracted to his natural understanding of how to play jazz, especially in the left hand, which many professionals 10 years his senior seem not to have grasped.” Marsalis explained via e-mail. “I first heard him playing with a high school band that was, admittedly, not too good. But I was surprised at his ability to keep time and swing, and not try to call attention to himself.”
Faulkner bowed his head, embarrassed, when recalling that experience, part of a student chamber-music program in the summer of 2007. “Everybody in my band forgot the music and couldn’t remember the arrangements, so we winged it. I was just trying to keep the band together so Branford wouldn’t stop us. Afterwards, he went down the line and told everyone what they did wrong, and I was sitting there shaking and sweating. And he gets to me and says, “Good job, kid. I think my chest was probably about 12 feet out.”
A few weeks later, Faulkner received his first call to sit in with the band, and earlier this year the spot became his on a permanent basis. His first show was on his 18th birthday, and the tour wrapped up just in time for him to make it to prom and graduation.
Flexing his chops onstage every night but still getting back to the hotel in time to finish his homework was a difficult balance to maintain, but his experience have matured him, Faulkner said.
“People always paid attention because of my age, but I always had to think of myself not just as the 13-year-kid who everybody’s going to treat nicely. Being in this business, I’ve been around adults for the majority of my life. That totally changed my thinking about my playing and the way that I handle myself in the company of others.”
Marsalis shrugged off any doubts about Faulkner’s age. “I have not qualms with age,” he said. “Just maturity. I’ve played with musicians who are much older yet behave much younger on an emotional level. Mature young players have a desire to learn, and they bring instant energy to a bunch of old fogies like us.”
Looking ahead, Faulkner hopes to expand his horizons, regardless of genre. “The drums are an extension of me,” he said. “I’ll play anything that has a beat. Music is music to me-classical, Indian ragas, R& B, neo-soul, whatever. I try to incorporate it all into my playing in some way while still being true to the tradition. If it’s God’s will, I just want to be a part of music until I leave this Earth. As long as that happens, I’m pretty sure I’ll be OK.”