No Child’s Play – Joey Alexander

This article was published in German at PianoNews, 2015.

Every once in a while, the established suggestion of long labored and ardent efforts behind true mastery, fall short in explaining the emergence of a true talent, (Ausnahme Talent) appearing out of seemingly nowhere.

Excited by a glimpse of such true genial capacity to mastermind the most intricate challenges instantaneously, innate and with the most natural appeal, we can’t help ourselves, but to allow this to alter all reserved judgment. Overcome with an emotional state of fascination – how is it even possible…., such magnetism – endorsed by music business’ beneficial display – easily leaves us star struck to a fault.

Jazz pianist Joey Alexander, his full name is Josiah Alexander Sila, was born 11 years ago in Denpassar on the island of Bali. He is one of the latest discoveries showing such one-of-a-kind artistic aptitude, with an astonishing intuition, which separates him from other prodigies, able to do some astonishing tasks, but rarely show such a musical maturity. Already an icon, since the short while of his discovery, his debut recording My Favorite Things was released this May on the Montéma label, and has by now climbed to the top of the charts. Covering popular jazz standards from Coltrane and Monk to Rodgers and Hammerstein, it also features one of Joey’s remarkable own compositions. Produced by Grammy award winning Jason Olaine, and recorded in collaboration with musicians like bassist Larry Grenadierand Russel Hall, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and Sammy Miller, as well as trumpeter Alphonso Horne, it catapults Joey’s facility of jamming with ease and sophistication with the best of the field, into a league of his own; a capacity that has not ceased to amaze the most stayed masters of jazz. He is about to prove himself to new audiences throughout a busy summer of all star jazz festivals and a fall tour throughout Europe; he will be visiting Germany this coming November.

The sunny twerp, who, conquering the keyboard and the hearts of his dedicated and enthused followers with his tiny hands and tender age, at some of the most celebrated stages, has clearly turned into a thrilling sensation.

Latest after his coming-out concert last year, broadcasted live from Lincoln Center, many invitations followed to perform on public television. Special interviews with Joey, establishing his unbelievable pianistic capacity and stylistic versatility with presentations by broadcast’s personalities like Christina Amnapour, have introduced Joey’s exceptional talent to the public eye, and have left a trail of amazed responses by audiences and critics alike, ranging from YouTube and Facebook to the front page of the New York Times.

Last year, Joey has left his second home town Jakarta behind, when he moved with his parents to the US. His older, married brother, who recently made Joey, “Uncle Joey,” stayed behind; they only see each other during occasional visits back home, in his native Indonesia. Joey likes being an uncle, as his smile reveals when talking about his little nephew, whom he might teach to play on day. Although he may not have had much time to spare for kids’ play when he decided to become more serious about the piano at age 7, Joey has kept his personally warm and happy nature. Closely beneath the surface, one senses that this delicate figure is made to move and a nervous energy of a highly goal oriented, driven persona.

After his initial encounter with the piano’s basics at age 6, when he immediately sat down to play the melodies of jazz standards, he had heard from his father’s CD collection, he started to jam only a year later with an overwhelming success. Most of his playing is self taught, with rather rudimentary help by others, including his father, an amateur musician. Joey explicitly mentions his father’s CD collection of classic jazz as one of his very initial inspirational experience with music altogether, as if trying to give himself an explanation for his early interest. “But I like all kind of music, especially anything related to jazz, like gospel, which is really part of that world,” he says and “everything is so readily accessible over the internet and YouTube,” a big help also in bringing out the word about Joey.

There was a short period of time experimenting with classical music lessons, with Joey’s quickly moving on, to find his own voice within the world of jazz. At age 8, UNESCO invited Joey to play solo piano in front of jazz icon Herbie Hancock, during his visit to Indonesia and his enthusiasm fueled Joey’s ambitions. At age 10 he was featured at jazz festivals in both Jakarta and Copenhagen, and won an international improvisation contest in Odessa.

“In Jakarta,” he says, “I started to practice seriously and started to jam with famous musicians,” which soon became instrumental in building him a dedicated following with a mighty vote of confidence. It was thanks to a collective effort of admiring musicians, diplomats and music business pros, that Joey was able to move to the US, gaining visa status of the exceptional gifted, which included, due to his young age, a guardianship granting residence permission for his parents. “There is no city like New York,” claims Joey, proud to be part of its unrivaled music scene. Here is where he needs to be, to further develop and have access to the variety of artists he is looking forward to work with, in his dream-like career that has been enfolding practically overnight. Already, he has tasted a bit of an extraordinary celebrity status, with PR present at his interviews, managers and recording labels surrounding and planning every moment of his busy day to day routine. And yes, there are timeslots allowed for play and relaxation:” I do like to play video games, watch lots of movies and play sports,” says Joey; tennis and swimming being his favorites. But for the most part, he takes an active interest and a budding entrepreneurial sense and charm, when it comes to building his public image. There is not much interaction with peers, his own age, while home schooled, with the support of an online program. “I find new friends all the time, though “he says untouched by any possible doubts, “They are mostly among the musicians I am performing with.” And while carrying his weight fully among mature musicians on a musical level may perfectly cater to his strong and independent character traits, one may raise a note of prudence, how being a child propelled into maturity, may show affects through this kind of disproportionate experiences(unausgegelichenheit) in his personal relationships.

Upon his soft spoken mother’s uncertainty, whether or not it would be favorable to have a photo taken with her prodigal son, he reacts fully like the pro he already has adapted to being, by his own expectation; declining politely but resolutely, he firmly decides for her:”Maybe another time.”

Undoubtedly, this sovereignty transpires into his music making and even at his young age, he clearly, as he says, follows the goal of” developing his very own, and personal voice.” And he does so with utmost attention to detail and the feeling of responsibility of any mature artist:” Practice is very important, he says, you have to be totally prepared for the performance, but then – on stage you have to be free.”

And part of this experience for him is:”staying cool and enjoying the moment; being in the music.”

And that is clearly a place where he feels completely at home and at ease. Even if stage fright might creep up at times, he can let go and find himself back in his element.  It is not only so much about his technical facility at the piano. There were different stages of negotiating a functional technique for his small hands, even if today it is totally impressive on its own merits; but it is his facility of musical performance, rather, that is so incredibly striking. His imagination and sensitivity necessary to pursue differing rhythmic grooves, in various styles and harmonic languages seems super natural. And he has done it basically on his own, aided mostly by his astonishing ear for color, form and structure, which have guided him into improvisational heights of soulful renditions and manifestations of his own competency for brilliant interpretations showing his own, lucid inflections.

It’s one thing if one’s country’s embassies take an interest in promoting their native talents, in an effort to present their country’s cultural landscape on an international level.  It’s another, when internationally recognized, famous musicians of the caliber of Wynton Marsalis or Herby Hancock, raise awareness   in support of a kid, whom they, simply on his own artistic merits, willingly accept into their own musical ranks. “He will take my job away,” said Herbie Hancock about Joey and his fans include prominent jazz supporters like Bill Clinton and Billy Crystal. Wynton Marsalis, also artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center invited him to partake in its 2014 Gala for the Jazz Foundation of America, where Joey gave an inspiring finale, playing Monk’s “Round Midnight” with great autonomy, that assured him not only a standing ovation, but also key supporters from the wider music community, including Juilliard students, who were among his many fans, rallying for his visa to stay on in the US.

Nate Chinen printed Joey’s story for the New York Times, explaining some interesting correlations, for example that Jason Olaine, the producer of Joey’s debut recording, as the director of programming and touring of Jazz at Lincoln Center, had a vision of extending Joey’s role as ambassador:”We are really interested in incorporating Joey into our educational outreach,” Mr. Olaine said,” to get him out into middle schools and play in front of kids his own age. He could inspire young people to listen to and enjoy jazz music.”

While Joey did not mention anything about visiting schools, he did bring up his budding trio with the drummer Sammy Miller and the bassist Russell Hall, who are part of his album.

Joey’s own composition on “My Favorite Things,” “Ma Blues,” was composed when he was 10 years old. It shows such a global understanding of the auditory architecture of music beyond its notes, complete with the jazzy rhythmic lilt and dynamics of a dancer and a poetic imagination. – That’s not really the definition of a prodigy, but rather an artist.

I have a feeling following Joey’s further output will not be overrated.