In his still-young prime time, 51st and Catherine Street boss, drummer and composer Justin Faulkner, has played with Bootsy Collins, Holly Cole, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jacky Terrasson, Jamaaladeen Tacuma… And, most prominently, starting in his teens, for saxophonist Branford Marsalis and the Branford Marsalis Quartet. But, it is in his always-thoughtful duel roles as bandleader and as civic leader that has made him provocative. Justin Faulkner is part of a familial heritage that includes the activism of his mother, Carol the classical pianist. Nazir Ebo, his brother the multi-instrumentalist, and their passion-filled West Philadelphia-focused Community Unity Music organization. Add to all that the forceful drummer gigs as a teacher at Temple U’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, and Faulkner is a triple threat.
This Wednesday, January 6 at 7 p.m., Faulkner is playing a live, virtual concert for the benefit of Jazz Bridge, Philly’s long-standing non-profit which supports jazz and blues musicians in the area with health, financial, medical and housing concerns. Hit the YouTube channel at jazzbridge.org for the majestic showcase, and look below for my long, frank and thoughtful conversation with Faulkner.
A.D. Amorosi: How was your 2020? Seriously, personally and professionally? How do you feel as if your music was able to develop at a time when the crucial ability of playing live was robbed from improvisational instinctual musicians such as yourself?
Justin Faulkner: 2020 created a long-overdue period of reflection and contemplation for me. After looking back at my life, I’ve only taken two vacations in the last 12 years. I’m blessed to consistently work in a freelance space, collaborate, and create beautiful things with some of the world’s greatest artists, and I shouldn’t take that lightly. However, I was tired. I’ve spent a lot of my time with my family. My mother, brother, and I are the caretakers for my 94-year-old grandmother. And that has its lessons that genuinely have contributed to keeping proper perspective for the last ten months. My final tour of the year was in March due to Covid-19. Like most people in the world, I have had the ebb and flow of emotions, but I can attribute my survival to faith in God. We’ve had many conversations and moments of prayer during this time, and even though I’ve lost many mentors and a few colleagues, I still have peace that I’ve found in the source of my strength. Professionally, things are different, but still purpose-driven. I look at most periods of my life as seasons. There is a time for everything. Yes, I am a touring musician, but I value my home life as well. I love playing live and creating with fellow artists, but I think I needed a break.
A.D. Amorosi: What is up with becoming an instructor at Temple U’s College of Music and Dance? Especially through this pandemic?
Justin Faulkner: Terrell Stafford, the Director of Instrumental Studies, asked me to join the faculty two years ago. And I’m enjoying every moment. I’ve had an affinity for education since I was a child. Several teachers and their respective communication styles made a big impression earlier on. Using that as a foundation, I’ve committed to educating the next generation about the history of music. But, most importantly, helping them embody the sound of the past so their imaginations may guide them to the next destination.
A.D. Amorosi: You have forever been a part of Branford Marsalis’ band with many shout outs from him on your solo endeavors. Now that he’s getting a serious due for his work on the “Ma Rainey Blues” soundtrack for Netflix, what say you of him, his artistry, what he gave you and what you gave him?
Justin Faulkner: I am still a member, fortunately. We’ve experienced quite a bit in the last 12 years, in March, together. We’ve developed our own vernacular infused with the sounds of the past, guided by the sounds from our respective imaginations and married together with what we’re feeling the moment you hear us. On Ma Rainey: It was incredible to see his work ethic in a different arena but still abiding in the same convictions and principles that we all synergetically believe. Playing some of those pieces showed me just how in tune he is with the sound of our past. The accuracy, the respect, and most importantly, the execution of placing song to film changed the way I view film scoring. Being in that studio with the team, experiencing the bands and orchestra turn the paper, sheet music, into a living thing was an unparalleled experience. Also, I must note that Branford’s ability to “hear” and understand music is an encounter unto itself. He is an encyclopedia of sound and curator of emotion with an understanding of culture, presently and historically.
A.D. Amorosi: The last time we spoke back in 2019, you were preparing an outdoor festival show at your West Philly home base of 51st and Catherine. What say you of your physical musical roots?
Justin Faulkner: West Philadelphia laid the groundwork for my development. My parents played music in the house. My mother practiced the piano and showed me the theoretical basics. And my father used to sing around the house. Then, inspiration came from the music at my church and live jazz concerts in my local park a block away from my doorstep. It is a beautiful place to grow up in and then, in adulthood, call home. My community supports me through all of my ventures and endeavors. They’ve also allowed late night practicing over the years. Their influence was a motivation to start our festival, the Community Unity Music Festival.
A.D. Amorosi: That said, what is up with mother Carol and brother Nazir?
Justin Faulkner: My mother, Carol Faulkner, and brother, Nazir Ebo, are doing well. Those two are my inspirations. They’re fighters, and they are brilliant human beings. I thank God for them and my grandmother. This pandemic taught us a deeper understanding of togetherness and accountability.
A.D. Amorosi: You and I have spoken on the subject of influences past many times. What is out there that’s new that has inspired you and how might we get to hear that through your new music?
Justin Faulkner: I have criteria that became my North Star. Great melody, intelligent architecture in song structure, emotionally moving chord progressions, and the intangible. Which I can only describe as the afterthought of stimulating in the moment transcendence. The goosebump moments. For me, that shows up across the spectrum. Nat King Cole’s Tis Autumn, The Intro to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album, Laura Mvula’s Dreaming Room, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil the album, and John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard may all sit in the same rotation in a week or day. These albums, along with many others, check those boxes listed above and more. Those principles above motivate me to create something that will hopefully touch someone how these songs have touched me.
A.D. Amorosi: What can you say about the performance this week for Jazz Bridge, the whole virtual jam thing? Is the intimacy level even close to a live setting for you? Do you like the format? Who will you play with, and what will you play?
Justin Faulkner: I tend to gravitate to artists that I can feel musically regardless of circumstance. Tim Warfield Jr., saxophone, is a long time mentor and friend, Stanley Ruvinov, bass, and I locked in immediately upon our first meeting. Lastly, Neil Podgurski, piano, and I have a telepathy sense that allows communication to flow seamlessly. When touring, different venues force us to change the nature of how we approach the instrument, so that part of this new season isn’t new to me. The unknown factor, the virus, being at play, can hinder due to all the precautions and coverings needed to join together that also affect sound production. However, as artists, we persevere. We know that our service to this music isn’t just for us. Music is healing, it’s nourishment, and it is needed. As a result, we push through the obstacles and allow ourselves to be present at the moment. Hopefully, our audience will join us on that same journey.
A.D. Amorosi: What is next for you that we can see, feel, touch and hear?
Justin Faulkner: What’s next? Honestly, I have no idea. I’m looking forward to the spring semester starting; I have my private studio, which you can access via my website. Performing will resume at some point soon. Until then, I plan to focus on one day at a time and give thanks for the roads traveled and the journey ahead.