There are few stories in jazz quite like that of Joey Alexander. At just 14 years old, he’s already a veteran performer, with a host of awards, Grammy nominations, and lauded performances behind him.
Joey hails not from a centre of jazz, but the Indonesian island of Bali. His parents presented him with his first keyboard at six, to see if he shared the family knack for music. Within a year, Joey was playing along to his dad’s jazz records.
Speaking from New York ahead of this Irish debut at the National Concert Hall on July 12, Joey remembers those early years. “Mostly, it came through my parents,” he says, “especially my father, who always had music around. We’d listen in the car, or at home, and I always felt this connection. I listened to all kinds of music, but it was that swing feel of jazz, that groove — I really felt that.”
Alexander names the likes of Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Clifford Brown among his heroes. “Listening to those players was how I got started,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I worked hard. I think I just really enjoyed it. You have to work on it, that’s for sure, but I think it comes from the love of music, and just wanting to share that. That is the inspiration for me. I can’t wait to share that, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you all in Ireland.”
The phrase ‘child prodigy’ is common for young pianists, but more in the classical realm than in the jazz one. With jazz, precocity usually runs into the brick wall of improvisation, which limits the depth of playing of most young players. Not Joey Alexander, however. His playing, especially on his new album Countdown, has a mastery of understanding and expression that any professional player would be proud of. “It’s the freedom to express myself,” he says of jazz improvisation. “I think of it as composing the moment, that’s what you are trying to do.”
This maturity beyond years was what struck the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who says he’s “never heard anyone who could play like him.” He gave Joey his chance to impress a big American audience. In 2014, when he was just 10 years old, Marsalis invited Joey to play the the Jazz at the Lincoln Centre gala. With the impetuousness of youth, Joey chose to play Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’, and his world changed overnight.
“That was a big stage,” Joey recalls. “I was a little bit scared of it but I was thinking positively: it was this one opportunity for me to show what I had got.”
Having shown what he’d got, Joey and his family were soon in demand at the top table of US jazz. He played the Newport Jazz Festival that summer, moved to New York, and released an album that made him the first Indonesian to enter the Billboard Top 200. Both that record, My Favourite Things, and Countdown, were nominated for Grammys.
“I thought, being in New York, I could express more with the music I was playing than back home,” he says of the big move. “It’s has a different energy, and there are a lot of great musicians here that I’ve had a chance to work with. I love being in New York. It is the centre of jazz, that’s what people would say. It is exciting, for sure, but of course, I am thankful to be able to travel around the world too.”
Life for young Joey now consists of performing, traveling and recording, with home schooling added in too. It sounds pretty all-encompassing. But nonetheless, he insists: “I do play video games, I watch movies. I think I am still being normal, you know. I take time to relax.”
- The Joey Alexander Trio is at the National Concert Hall on July 12.