A few years ago, saxophonist Branford Marsalis had a problem.
Jeff "Tain" Watts, the longtime drummer in Marsalis' tightly woven quartet, was striking out to start a band of his own, and Marsalis needed to find a replacement.
"I put out a feeler to (ace drummer) Eric Harland, and he said: 'No thanks,' which I understand – I'm a hard ass," says Marsalis, who leads his quartet at Symphony Center on Friday evening on a double-bill with Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band.
"I was trying to find someone for my band, and all the New York drummers were working."
So Marsalis took a gamble: He decided to try out a teenage drummer from Philadelphia who hadn't yet finished high school. Considering that the neophyte would be playing alongside Marsalis, the leonine pianist Joey Calderazzo and the accomplished bassist Eric Revis, odds that the youngster would survive were not necessarily encouraging.
But Justin Faulker, who's now all of 22 years old, quickly won wide critical acclaim and had a galvanic effect on the quartet, catching everyone by surprise – including the seasoned musician who hired him.
"We've always kind of prided ourselves on our intensity," says Marsalis, 53. But "you grow old gradually. … In sports, it's clear when you're 50 that you're not 20. And when 'Tain' left the band, and this damn (near-) 20-year-old joined the band, we had to face that kind of sports moment.
"Like, holy (expletive). We thought we were playing with intensity, so it was a wake-up call for all of us. He brought a fire that quite frankly only a younger person can bring that. We remembered how to do it, but we just realized we weren't doing it.
"It took us a couple of gigs to get used to matching his intensity."
You can hear that ferocity in Marsalis' album "Four MFs Playin' Tunes" (2012), an especially hard-hitting session that marked Faulkner's recording debut with the band. No one has been more startled by this turn of events than Faulkner himself.
"The first time that I ever heard Branford was when I was in fifth grade, and that was the first live jazz concert that I had ever been to," recalls Faulkner, who still finds it a bit hard to believe that he's now a pivotal player in one of the most admired small groups in jazz.
"In eighth grade … I actually got to see them again, and they had just released their 'A Love Supreme: Live in Amsterdam' DVD. … That was life-changing."
None of which really prepared Faulkner for the moment when Marsalis came to work with students at the teenager's high school – and was unsparing in his criticism.
"Branford basically stopped us and said: 'Good. I just wanted you to know (that) none of you listens to jazz' – he went down the line and told each person" what was wrong with their work, recalls Faulkner.
"And he gets to me, and I'm trembling, I'm terrified, and he basically says: 'I don't know what you've been doing, I don't know what you've been listening to, but whatever you're doing, keep doing.'"
Indeed, Marsalis was impressed.
"I heard him play when he was in high school, and it was a slow blues," recalls the saxophonist. "And the two things that amazed me (are) that he didn't show impatience with a slow blues, and he wasn't exasperated with the fact that he was way better than all the guys he was playing with.
"He had this amazing left hand, but there was contentment with swing. It wasn't: 'Look at what I'm doing!'
"I assumed because he was a young kid, he could do all that pyrotechnic (stuff), because that's what all the young kids do now. But most of the young guys can't swing, especially at a slower tempo.
"So I thought: Let's see if he has the intellect to potentially jump up to the next level."
Three months later, Marsalis summoned Faulkner for a one-night try-out with the band, then a few more dates, then offered him the job. And thus a long-running quartet found itself re-energized, as "Four MFs Playing Tunes" affirms.
It's critical to note, though, that neither Marsalis' muscular virtuosity nor Faulkner's youthful energy alone drive this band. Revis and Calderazzo bring ample firepower to the ensemble, as well.
What's strange, though, is that Calderazzo – a bona fide keyboard giant – doesn't get greater acclaim for his work.
"He isn't discussed as much because the focus on thinking in jazz is a false focus on innovation," says Marsalis.
"There's really a two-fold discussion here: There's this idea that everybody is looking for the next innovative person, and if the person actually showed up we would be able to identify them. Even though history says we usually hate those people," adds Marsalis, who's exactly right. Innovators such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman and others were villified long before they were lionized.
"And with this whole idea of innovation in music, there's this idea that studying the history of music to move forward is derided as neoclassical. So from the moment that Joey (Calderazzo) joined the band, he got kind of thrown into my camp – the camp of the neoclassicist – and he suddenly wasn't cool anymore."
Or at least not according to those who follow politically correct lines of thought in jazz discourse, which neither Branford nor his brother Wynton ever have.
Perhaps only an artist as self-assured and uncompromising as Branford Marsalis would have dared to take a chance on a drummer as unproven as Faulkner or, even more remarkable, pour his own, hard-earned money into running a record company of his own. Through the years, though, his Marsalis Music label has released important recordings by artists such as alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, singer Claudia Acuna, pianist Calderazzo and Marsalis himself.
What's it like running a record label in the digital 21st century?
"I don't think it's any different than it was before – it's like digging a big hole, throwing money in it and setting it on fire with lighter fluid," says Marsalis, exaggerating only a little.
"That's essentially what it is. You have to believe in it, and it was necessary at the time," adds Marsalis, who created the label in 2002.
"I was just philosophically opposed to the idea that creative music should be filtered through the same lens that popular music is. Because there's no paradigm you can invent that's going to sell these records, particularly in the short run.
"The only thing you'll do in the short run is make great records and sell dribs and dribs and collectively, over time, maybe something will happen. That's the story of (John Coltrane's) 'A Love Supreme' and (Miles Davis') 'Kind of Blue.' … There is no secret formula."
Why, then, does Marsalis go to all this trouble and expense?
"Somebody has to do it," he says. "It's a little difficult right now, because it's not like I won the lottery, so there's a limit to how many records I can make without my wife throwing me out in the street.
"It's not going to be as robust (a release schedule) as it's been, but we'll keep waiting for our opportunities."
Judging by the savvy choices Marsalis has made with artists such as Zenon, who went on to win a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, there could be significant recordings ahead. At the very least, the Marsalis Quartet clearly has a great deal more to say.
"The thing that I love about all the guys in the band is that fear is not a motivator," says the saxophonist. "Nothing that we do – being afraid of what other people will think of it is not a motivating factor."
And it never has been for Marsalis and his quartet, which may help explain the ferocity of the music and the remarkable durability of the band.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $28-$70; 312-294-3000 or cso.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye