Wise Beyond His Years: Joey Alexander Plays From The Heart
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Wise Beyond his Years: Joey Alexander Plays from the Heart

November 21, 2018 | by Richard Scheinin

When Joey Alexander speaks, certain words and phrases keep cropping up: “Freedom” is the one he uses most often while talking about the essential qualities of jazz. That’s followed by “conversation” and “interaction” – key to any performance – as well as “wisdom,” “feeling” and the need to “become one with the song.” The 15-year-old pianist explains his motivation for spending a life in music: “Most important for me is to play from your heart – to share it from your heart for whoever it is that’s listening to you. And then it becomes spiritual. That’s the way I play music.”

During a 40-minute phone conversation, Alexander – who will perform with his trio and special guest, saxophonist Chris Potter, for four nights at SFJAZZ (Dec. 13-16) – occasionally sounds like the kid that he is. He collects action figures and plays video games, he says. He giggles, thinking about the movie Crazy Rich Asians, which he recently saw in the theater, twice. But then there’s his other side, the side that talks about music as a source of “uplift and joy.” American listeners have made a fuss over Alexander’s talents since 2014, when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis brought the then 11-year-old to New York to perform at Lincoln Center and declared him a genius. In 2016, again with Marsalis, he performed on 60 Minutes, which devoted a 13-minute segment to the pianist, titling it “Little Jazz Man.” Host Anderson Cooper made much of Alexander’s unconventional journey to jazz – Joey became enamored while growing up in Indonesia, first in Bali, then in Jakarta – and asserted that “we’ve never seen anyone like the young boy we’re going to introduce you to tonight… He is becoming a musical sensation.”

Prodigies come and go and no one can predict what shape Alexander’s career will take. Still, if you’re skeptical about the depth of his talents – as this writer once was – then watch the pianist’s 2017 video performance of “Eclipse,” the title track of his third and latest album. It is unhurried and thick with feeling, an organic, growing conversation between Alexander, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. In Alexander’s touch and phrasing – the way he leaves space inside his lines, the way the music flows – you can sense the influence of one of his heroes, pianist Ahmad Jamal. But this isn’t some rote recitation of Jamal’s approach. Freedom is in the air, and Alexander’s famous band mates look super-focused and a little bit tripped out by the session.

When he comes to San Francisco, Alexander will play “Eclipse” and other compositions from the new record, this time with bassist Kris Funn and drummer Kendrick Scott. Like Rogers and Harland, these are top-of-the-line players who have no need to pad their resumes by putting in time with a mere “kid sensation.”

That said, Alexander – born Josiah Alexander Sila – is still a kid. He attends school online: “Science, American history, some historic books and novels – interesting things to keep me going.” Raised in a religious family, he participates in daily Bible study sessions and lives in Manhattan with his mother and father, Fara Leonora and Denny Sila. Like his dad, an amateur pianist and guitarist, Joey is largely self-taught as a musician. When he was a child in Bali, his father’s record collection – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane – became his gateway: “Listening to jazz greats,” he says, “you know they’re having a good time, having fun and having good, meaningful conversation.” Starting on the piano at age six – and soon taking apart Monk’s jigsaw compositions by ear – he gained notice among local musicians. To increase his opportunities, his parents moved the family to Jakarta when Joey was eight. He became a regular at jam sessions: “That, I would say, was my school,” he says. “I always love having a dialogue, maybe with the drummer or the bass player, and I think that’s my learning process. Even though you’re playing the same song, you can make it sound different every time and I think that really attracted me to jazz – the freedom, how to make my decisions in the moment. But,” he cautions, “it also takes a sense of responsibility and control.”

During a visit to Jakarta, Herbie Hancock heard Joey play and encouraged him to keep it up. Videos of his performances started showing up on YouTube – and were spotted by Marsalis who flew him to New York to perform at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Gala in 2014. GRAMMY nominations followed, along with his first two albums, one devoted to Monk's compositions. With Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter, Joey performed for President Barack Obama at the White House. Through all of this, his parents have guided his career – with a light touch, it seems. “They always remind me to keep grounded and be humble,” he says.

Asked if he considers Marsalis and other mentors to be his friends, he pauses, then says they are “kind of like family. I call Wynton Uncle.’” He laughs. “Uncle Wynton.’”

Asked what he would do if Marsalis, Shorter, Charles Lloyd or some other elder musician invited him to join their band, he seems flustered. Again, there is a long pause, before he says, “I never thought about being on the road with other people.”

But asked how he “becomes one” with a song, he doesn’t hesitate: “By focusing on the beautiful harmony and the melody. For me, that’s the important thing when I learn a new song – try to grab the essence of it.”

There is something retro about Alexander. At a time when most young jazz musicians can’t imagine having a career without racking up credentials from top conservatories, he is self-taught. In an era when market strategy is often paramount, he appears somewhat oblivious: He has a new EP (A Joey Alexander Christmas), but beyond that, he says, “I don’t know yet what the next project will be. It will come to me very soon,” he jokes.

To Alexander, it doesn’t seem strange that he fell in love with jazz on the island of Bali: “It’s where I was born to enjoy this music,” he says. “I know it’s a calling, that it’s God’s gift for me to share. So I always try to keep working on my music, to get better at it, just working on this instrument I’m playing, the 88 keys. It’s a lot.”

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.