Joey Alexander is more than a mere prodigy; he is closer to a freak of nature, a fully formed jazz virtuoso who plays with the harmonic dexterity of an Ahmad Jamal or Dave Brubeck or Oscar Peterson.
By Glenn Rifkin
You run out of adjectives long before your mind can wrap itself around what you are witnessing. The kid at the Steinway looks like he should be waiting for the summer camp bus but his fingers are flying around the keyboard in a brilliant blur. He is playing Thelonius Monk’s classic “I Mean You” and the crowd is mesmerized and mind-blown, waiting to explode into a raucous standing ovation.
This is a Joey Alexander concert and among the many things one must do throughout is remind oneself that he is just 12 years old! He is more than a mere prodigy; he is closer to a freak of nature, a fully formed jazz virtuoso who plays with the harmonic dexterity of an Ahmad Jamal or Dave Brubeck or Oscar Peterson. And the only way to fully appreciate what is happening is to see him in person, which I was lucky enough to do last Saturday afternoon at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA.
The buzz about Alexander has been building steadily over the past two years, culminating in a scintillating performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in early August. He has been featured on The Today Show, NPR and in The New York Times, and YouTube is now littered with videos of his performances, garnering millions of views by astonished music fans.
Born in Bali, Indonesia in 2003 (yes, 2003!), Alexander listened to his father’s jazz collection and was intrigued by the sounds of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. At age six, he sat down at the piano and began to play for his astonished parents, the music flowing through his tiny hands, channeling these jazz greats in a manner and technique that was otherworldly. Entirely self-taught, he played with the virtuosity of an old soul in a genre that is all about self-expression, creativity, and improvisation. There was no music teacher or sheet music that could spawn this level of performance. This was pure joy, a deeply-felt love of the music that seemed impossible for a small child. The word reincarnation tends to come up often when people see him perform. How else to explain this phenomenon?
Alexander began to garner worldwide attention in 2014 when Wynton Marsalis heard him and was so impressed that he flew him to New York to perform at his Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala. There, Alexander displayed the skill that has quickly turned him into an international sensation.
At the Shalin Liu, with a gorgeous summer afternoon spread out across the harbor behind the stage, Alexander joined bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. as the audience murmured in wonder. A diminutive figure with a full head of shaggy black hair and thick dark glasses, his cherubic face smiling out at the audience, he sat down and launched into a Coltrane number that only gave slight evidence of what was to come. Tentative at the start, he relaxed quickly and the magic began to happen. He blended seamlessly with his sidemen as if he’d been performing like this for decades.
He segued into his own rendition of “My Funny Valentine” with a fearless and deft touch, unintimidated about taking iconic classics and making them his own. His original arrangements, all self-conceived, reflected the explosiveness of a Ahmad Jamal, and when he launched into Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life,” he had the audience transfixed. He can play with fire or with a soft touch, sometimes using his left hand for the melody, and he never sounds anything but authentic. His performance is playful and surprising and his technique is so fresh and polished that you come away assured that you are witnessing the birth of a unique career. Several times, I noticed bass player Chmielinski glance over at drummer Whitfield with a look that exclaimed, “Can you believe this kid?”
And as if this all wasn’t enough, Alexander performed two original compositions, “Sea Light” and later, “Sunny Roads,” that further cemented his genius. And yes, genius is one of those overused descriptors that often cross into hyperbole. But in this case, it is the only appropriate way to describe this wunderkind.
When he grabbed a microphone to introduce his songs and the members of his trio, the high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice triggered some delighted laughter. If you had forgotten for a moment that this was a child, an extraordinarily talented child but a child nonetheless, his commentary, so innocent and earnest, brought back a touch of reality.
When he finished his 90-minute set with the rousing Monk tune, the ovation lasted long enough to persuade him to return alone for an encore. “I see you want more,” he said with a smile. Indeed, with a future promising unprecedented levels of jazz virtuosity, audiences will undoubtedly want more for a long time to come.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.