We had heard the buzz about this young kid who had set the jazz world ablaze after Wynton Marsalis introduced him at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gala concert in 2014. At the time, Joey Alexander was all of eleven years old. A year later he released “My Favorite Things,” a CD that was nominated for best jazz album of the year at the 2016 Grammy awards. And so, when the dates for his concerts at the Vanderhoef Studio Theater (on the campus of U.C. Davis) were announced last spring, we were quick to put in our request for tickets.
We attended the concert young Alexander (Joey) and his trio gave last month and can now confirm that the hype is true. This thirteen-year old is a true prodigy with a natural ability to play jazz piano. His concert was superb, one of the best of any musical genre we have attended this year. And he now has released a second CD, entitled “Countdown,” that should get him more Grammy nods. He and his trio played five of the nine songs from that album, three of which are Alexander compositions.
Joey (Josiah Alexander Sila) was born in Indonesia in June of 2003. His parents are not musicians, but they love jazz music. At the age of six, Joey was already playing jazz on a miniature electric keyboard his father had purchased for him, and by the age of eight, after he had played for Herbie Hancock, who was on a goodwill tour to Indonesia, he had decided to “dedicate” his “childhood to jazz.” He learned by ear, from listening to classic jazz albums his father owned. He says now that learning the instrument (piano) just came naturally to him.
And to see him play, we can definitely attest to his virtuosity. His technical skill is the equal of any adult (even when he stands to play, as he occasionally did during parts of several of the songs in the set). Just barely a teenager, he is still slight of build, but his diminutive size only added to his appeal at the concert, especially when he bowed at the end of the concert, sandwiched between the two fully grown adults who played with him.
Those adult musicians are no slouches either. On drums, Ulysses Owens, Jr. has been with Joey from the recording of “My Favorite Things,” and has toured with him continuously. Bass player Reuben Rogers, a highly skilled bassist in the mold of Stanley Clarke, is not on either of the CDs but fills out the trio on tour very nicely. Of the two, he had the more nuanced solos. Mr. Owens was dynamic in his solos, but more traditional in his execution.
Joey himself was a mix of traditional and avant garde. He isn’t at the stage where his compositions are taking jazz in an entirely new direction, but he has a style that is already his own, and he shows an ability to do things in his arrangements that are intriguing. His performance was, in a word, exciting. Just when he appeared to be taking an expected turn, he would let loose with a wholly different riff that had him covering the entire keyboard (as he stood over it), his fingers flying from one end of the 88 keys to the other.
The set began with smart arrangements of John Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” (which is on the new CD). The trio then played two originals by Joey, “City Lights” and “Soul Dreamer” (both on the new CD). Each was appealing in its sophistication and intricacy. They were followed by Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One,” on which all three musicians had their best solos. “Countdown,” the title tune from the new CD, by Coltrane closed the set.
But the trio returned in response to the standing ovation it received from the capacity audience, and it offered “Sunday Waltz,” another Alexander original from the new album. It is a lovely ballad that seemed to express the personality (gentle and open, maybe just a little shy) of this young master. It left us feeling quite literally overjoyed for reasons that can only be explained by having felt the composed soulfulness of a true prodigy.