KEYBOARD PLAYER JUSTIN C. GILBERT KNOWS THAT “overnight success” usually means a lot of hard work behind the scenes before the spotlight finds its mark. Gilbert’s star-studded résumé includes stints with Jill Scott, Eminem and Jay-Z. And most recently, Gilbert spent two full years touring with another guy named Justin. Timberlake, that is.
“It seems like it happened overnight, but it definitely was a long night!” Gilbert says. “Every situation has been an opportunity for growth. The opportunity to work with such talented musicians and an artist the caliber of Justin Timberlake is a dream come true.”

A career in music seemed inevitable for the Atlanta, Georgia native. “Music just came naturally to me.” Gilbert explains. “I began playing drums in church around age two. And then my mom made me start taking piano lessons when I was about six.” He also played cello and orchestral percussion throughout elementary and high school and joined his school’s marching band. When his first pro gig came along, Gilbert was more than ready. “Though my first big break wasn’t so big,” he admits. “I was doing a stage play that didn’t pay much, but it was really cool. I was just happy to be working. I knew it would propel me to the next thing.”


And it did. “I heard this quote earlier today,” Gilbert says. “Mark Twain said, ‘The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.’ Doing what you love and what you’re passionate about, and getting paid for it. So it was a no-brainer when the opportunities began to happen. I knew that this was for me.”

As one of Justin Timberlake’s “Tennessee Kids”—a hyper-talented support crew of 19 dancers, singers, and players—Gilbert’s role as keyboardist was tightly intertwined with those of his fellow performers.

justin-small2“I thought of myself as a small moving part in a big machine,” he says. “It's not a challenge when you're working with individuals that understand their musical roll in the band. It definitely requires discipline. But when you’re a smart player, and you’re working with other great players, you find ways to be innovative and still play your part.”

\Not to mention the walloping musical payoff: “Playing with so many people, the sound is just huge!” he says. “They've gotten me spoiled with their level of musicianship.”

His secret weapons? The Yamaha Motif XF7 and XF8. “I like the customization,” he says. “The basic Motif sounds and samples are great as is. But it’s also easy to set up layering and performance options that work really well for what I do. I love the sound selections of the XF—they’ve got the current sounds, so it’s just great. And because I know these instruments, I’m able to maximize what I can do with them.”

Gilbert’s time as a Tennessee Kid has wrapped up for now, but he’s far from idle. He’s gearing up to release his first solo album, Aligned, which combines pop and cinematic flavors with what he calls "feel-good music.”

“I love music with good vibes,"he says. "I'm singing a little and playing multiple instruments––not just piano, but synths, organ, timpani; all sorts of things.”

There are some notable guest stars on his record as well, Gilbert says: “Players I know and love, and everyone else does, too. And there’s this kind of big pop-world song called ‘Try Again,’ that features all of the Tennessee Kids along with Maroon 5 vocalist/key-boardist, PJ Morton. It’s like a nice musical gumbo.”

Whether he’s onstage with a major artist or focusing on his own music, Gilbert’s diverse career gives him plenty of musical references to draw from. “I think the essence of any player is basically the sum of their experiences,” he notes. “And I have a fairly versatile musical background: a little classical, some jazz, some pop, rap, hip hop. All these things together are what create my style.”

But there’s even more to it, he adds: “It’s about being able to adapt, and being very present and attentive as a musician. I think my musical fingerprint is an intangible thing. It’s a feeling. The way people feel when they hear me play is the thing that makes me special.”