Branford Marsalis’s Justin Faulkner
On Tour & On Stage Making It Work On The Road
by Ken Micallef
photo courtesy of Zildjian
This month we ask seven road dogs about the ups and downs of life on tour, and for useful tips on everything from dealing with odd personalities on the bus to working with a click track live to choosing the right gear for the long haul. Listen up—it’s the kind of stuff that can help make your next gig or tour a dream rather than a nightmare.
How does a teenage newcomer follow one of the most heralded drummers in modern jazz history? Follow the song, kid, follow the song.
At the fresh-faced age of eighteen, Justin Faulkner has not only replaced one of the premier drummers in jazz, he’s landed one of the idiom’s most cherished gigs. And he has yet to record a single record.
Jeff “Tain” Watts manned Branford Marsalis’s titanium-plated drum throne for longer than most of us can remember, but sometime in early ’09 Marsalis tapped Faulkner for the gig, and the newly enrolled Berklee College Of Music freshman never looked back.
A simple YouTube search shows Faulkner burning with various leaders, but his relatively new gig with Marsalis has taught the young gun secrets about improvisation, song form, and relying on instinct—all necessary tools for live music presentation.
“I’ve never had a rehearsal with Branford,” Faulkner reveals from his hometown of Philadelphia. “We just play. We don’t do soundchecks; we don’t do any of that stuff. Sometimes Branford hands me charts. Other times he sends me the records and says, ‘Learn this.’ He taught me a method where instead of trying to figure out everything, I’m basing the song forms on the melody and the bass. Branford says the song will tell you what it needs in order to make it a good song. The song will tell you where the next large downbeat should be.”
Faulkner has been playing jazz around Philly for most of his teenage years—since the age of three, in fact— and he’s studied both privately and at local institutions. (In addition to drums he plays orchestral percussion.) He played his first gig with Marsalis in San Antonio when he was only sixteen, but the initial results were so poor, due to drastic tempo shifts, that the tenor saxophonist simply said, “Better luck next time, kid.” But he knew Faulkner had something special. Later that same night the Marsalis band, including bassist Eric Revis and pianist Larry Goldings, played one of Tain’s signature tunes, “Samo.” Faulkner acquitted himself well and earned the nickname “the Assassin.” “Branford keeps me on my game,” Justin laughs.
Befitting his role in a band that never practices or rehearses, Faulkner includes prayer as a part of his warm-up routine. After listening to Marsalis blow his tenor on classical compositions preshow, the drummer typically returns to his room for spiritual reflection and a little focused practice.
First, for the soul: “I do a short prayer; that’s the first thing,” Faulkner says. “That’s the center of my playing. Kendrick Scott has a prayer on all of his sticks. I ask that the music become one with me and that the drums become an extension of me. That reminds me that it’s not about me. It helps me to not overplay and to complement whoever is soloing.”
Then, for the senses: “I’ll go through some simple rudiments like paradiddles on a Vic Firth practice pad, then slowly increase the tempo. And I do flam accents with weird displacements, starting with the left hand. That warms up my wrists. We often do rubato ballads where I play rolls with mallets on the floor tom. To control the overtones, my rolls have to be fast to choke some of the sound so it doesn’t drown out the band. Warming up helps.”
Since the Marsalis quartet is entirely acoustic, no onstage or in-ear monitors are used—that is, unless a hall is extremely problematic, in which case Faulkner runs “a little piano” through a single stage monitor. More important to the group than the monitoring setup is each member’s placement on the stage. “We always set up in a V shape,” Justin says. “And I’m always in the left corner, with Branford in the middle. He wants me there because he likes the band set up like he’s listening to a stereo. He wants the bass in the middle, with the piano to the right. It gives it that oomph.”
Since the acoustic group is keenly aware of dynamics and the hall environment, the members often carry on a conversation during the set. Sometimes Marsalis advises Faulkner; the group will even joke on stage. Communication is key, so why rely purely on the nonverbal? “We say whatever we need to say on stage,” Faulkner explains. “We just talk, even in the middle of songs. When I first began playing with Branford, he might say something like, ‘Why are you using sticks in this song? Listen.’ Or, ‘Does what you’re playing make sense in a hall like this?’ That’s his main thing. He wants me to listen.”
But some things are obvious, even to an eighteen-year-old. “I may end songs just by understanding the momentum of the song; maybe I’ll do something really aggressive. On Tain’s tune [“Samo”], Branford will sometimes turn around to signal me, and then I know to bring up the intensity. I’ll play a certain figure, and the band will know it’s the end of the song.”
But as with all serious musicians, the communication between jazz players remains largely unspoken: You do the homework, you shed the tunes, you hit the stage. “Basically, I try not to think at all,” Faulkner says. “Then each song can find its own place. But I’m also considering: What can I do to make this song come alive for the people? What can I do to portray the message of the song? That keeps my head in the game the whole time. It’s mostly subconscious. What effect will adding this figure have? How will it change the timbre of the horn? If Branford plays a high note, what if I complete his phrase by hitting the bell of the cymbal? I ask myself that subconsciously, and the music either comes alive or I fail in doing it at that moment.”
Tools Of The Trade
Faulkner plays Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute drums, including a 6×14 snare, 7×10 and 9×12 toms, 13×14 and 15×16 floor toms, and a 14×18 bass drum; Zildjian cymbals, including 14″ K Constantinople hi-hats, a 20″ A Custom EFX, a 20″ K Custom Dry Complex II ride, a 22″ K Bounce ride, and a 22″ K Custom Dry Complex II ride with three rivets; and Vic Firth sticks, including Joe Porcaro Diamond Tip 7A, Peter Erskine model, Tala Wands (bamboo), T1 General mallets, Rute 505 nylon tip, purple Heritage brushes, and black Steve Gadd brushes.