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."