Purely in terms of social standing, Justin Faulkner knew exactly where he stood when he joined the Branford Marsalis Quartet.
For instance, he knew he was teaming with one of the most prestigious jazz combos in the country. But given that the band had just parted ways with longstanding drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, Faulkner also was aware the group was experiencing its first personnel shift in more than a decade. And since he signed as the quartet's new drummer on his 18th birthday, he was throwing himself in with a pack of jazz pros who were more than twice his age.
Adjusting to all of that was the latest step in Faulkner's rapid maturation as a professional musician. But what of the music, the volcanically intense jazz that has long been a signature of the Marsalis Quartet? That was an altogether different matter.
"Being around the guys in the band was actually pretty easy because they treated me as an equal," said Faulkner, now 21, who will perform with the Marsalis Quartet at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on Tuesday. "There has never been an underlying factor of, 'Oh, he's a kid. Let's treat him like a child.' From day one, they said, 'OK, listen. This is manhood now. You have to step up and be accountable for all of your actions and for all of the things you don't do but should be doing.' So in terms of camaraderie, it's always been really easy to get along with the guys.
"Now in terms of music, that was a horse of a different color completely. I mean, I had never played music that intense in my life. There is an intensity at work that I feel not a lot of people really understand. Branford understands the intensity of the John Coltrane Quartet. He understands the intensity of the Count Basie Band. He brings those elements and more to the stage.
"To be honest with you, after the first song of my first gig, I thought I was going to pass out. I was going, 'OK. That's the gig, right?' And Branford was like, 'No, man. We have six or seven songs left.' I mean, I was soaking wet. I was sitting there hyperventilating. I drank, it must have been, four or five bottles of water. I was terrified."
While the Philadelphia native held great respect for the years his new bandmates — saxophonist Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis — had played together ("They had been playing almost as long as I'd been alive"), Faulkner soon came to realize they were still were all students of the music.
"The day that I joined the band, they said, 'OK, here is a ton of music you have to learn.' They gave me records upon records — at least 100 gigabytes of records. And I'm still figuring those records out. But the beautiful thing is they are, too," said Faulkner. "Even though these guys are masters in their own right, every day is a new chapter for them. Everyone is still exploring the music. They are exploring the depth of emotion that goes into the music. And that's inspiring for me.
"Branford says all the time, 'The day I'm no longer a student of the music is the day that I should probably stop.' Look, my first jazz concert was the Branford Marsalis Quartet. That was when I was in fifth grade. So it was really important for me to figure out what my role was in the band."
Several shades of that role are revealed on Faulkner's recording debut with the Marsalis Quartet, 2012's Four MFs Playin' Tunes. There he propels the joyously combustible combo swing of Calderazzo's The Mighty Sword, glides gently under Marsalis' delicately mischievous soprano sax lead on Revis' Maestra and conjures a New Orleans groove that smooths out into vigorous bop on the Thelonious Monk gem Teo.
"Branford's philosophy is that he wants to get to the soul of the music in two takes," the drummer said. "And if you don't, well, that's what's going on the record. Once you start doing four, five, six, seven takes, you're just chasing your tail. As much of the music as you're going to get will happen in the first two takes.
"I've done other recording sessions where we spent a week in the studio, and it was great. It was a different experience. But doing just a few takes almost puts a sense of urgency in you where you have to realize that, 'OK, I only have two times to actually figure this song out, so let me see what the total arc of the song is.' Working that way has been a very, very interesting experience."
IF YOU GO
Branford Marsalis Quartet
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond
Tickets: $50-$60; available by calling (859) 622-7469 or at Ekucenter.com