Joey Alexander Takes Giant Steps

Can the piano phenom find his personal voice while coming of age in the spotlight?

Joey Alexander
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On the White House's South Lawn in late April, Alexander, Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding celebrate International Jazz Day with a flowing, elastic performance of Shorter's "Footprints"
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At the Town Hall in October, Alexander impresses the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
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Alexander addresses his hero Herbie Hancock at the Apollo in 2014
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Alexander pals around with Jon Batiste at Newport in 2015
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Joey Alexander has grown a lot in a year. Maybe that’s an obvious thing to say about someone just going through puberty. But if you’ve been keeping tabs on him, you can’t help but notice it: Joey stands taller now, and perches higher at a piano, than he did around the midpoint of 2015. His features are no longer quite so childlike. His arms hang at his sides. He carries himself with a shy but steady confidence, the very picture of untroubled youth. Say it again: Joey Alexander has grown a lot in a year.

He’s seen and done some remarkable things since the release of his auspicious debut, My Favorite Things (Motéma), which hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Jazz Albums chart and garnered two Grammy nominations, for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo. Joey performed twice at this year’s Awards, rampaging with a trio during the pre-telecast ceremony and later finessing a solo piano number on the network broadcast, to a standing ovation.

He has also toured the world, met many of his musical heroes, and appeared as a featured guest with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Town Hall. He has been touted by a staggering range of media outlets, including some that rarely cover jazz. In the summer of 2015, when he made his debut at the Newport Jazz Festival, Joey was trailed by a camera crew from CBS’ 60 Minutes. At one point in the resulting segment-a 13-minute profile titled “Little Jazz Man”-Wynton Marsalis offered an appraisal of his talent. “I’ve never heard anyone who could play like him,” Marsalis said, a moment before the word “genius” was tossed about.

Then there was the White House, where Joey joined an all-star coterie for the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert in late April. He performed in an ad hoc trio with the august saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the exuberant bassist Esperanza Spalding, fashioning a peekaboo elaboration on Shorter’s “Footprints.” Discursive and shimmery, flowing with a loose tether to song form, it stood as a high point of the gala event. The responsive and subtly exploratory quality of the pianism had a lot to do with that.

Two weeks later, Joey and his parents, Denny and Fara Sila, are recalling the swirl of Jazz Day over lunch in Manhattan’s East Village. “We had just got back from Abu Dhabi,” says Denny, who’s soft-spoken but amiable, and the person most deeply involved in Joey’s musical development. “Yeah,” says Joey, chuckling. “Kind of jetlagged.”

“From Abu Dhabi, they picked us up at the airport and took us straight to the White House,” Denny adds. “Wayne was already there with Esperanza. They were ready, waiting for him.”

“It was so crazy,” Fara chimes in. “We were running.”

The rehearsal preceded a taping in the White House foyer-and judging by the tenor of Joey’s comments, performing with Shorter was even more awe-inspiring than meeting the President of the United States. “Well, I never imagined I would play with him,” Joey says. “And his music is so free. It was hard for me to adjust to. But, you know, I was just trying to dig in with him.”

Asked to reflect on the overwhelming blur and balancing act of the past 12 months or so, Joey-whose second album, Countdown, was due out on Motéma in September-smiles obligingly. “It’s a lot, for sure,” he says. “It’s kind of hard, but I try to manage it well.”

There isn’t really any way to talk about Joey Alexander-born Josiah Alexander Sila in Bali, Indonesia-without stumbling over the word “prodigy.” This is both a blessing and a curse. But the facts of the case are incontrovertible: Joey was a baby-faced 8-year-old when he first played in Jakarta for Herbie Hancock, who was there as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. The following year, he entered and won an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine.

He was 10 when one of his YouTube videos caught the notice of Marsalis, who arranged for him and his family to be flown to New York so he could perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual gala. From that moment, more opportunities arose: Motéma made Joey the youngest signing to its roster, and an array of wealthy, well-connected New Yorkers began to help the Sila family with visas, expenses and housing (they currently reside in SoHo). When the family is on the West Coast, they often stay in Sausalito, Calif., at the home of novelist Amy Tan.

Joey, who speaks with a softly lisping accent, exudes an innocence that can inspire protective urges among his supporters. “He’s such a little kid,” said Larry Grenadier, who plays bass on both of Joey’s albums. “This is the beautiful thing about him. He maintains this kid thing and he balances it with the extreme maturity of his musical ability.”

The disjunction between a childlike demeanor and a mature artistic expression is an obvious hallmark of child prodigies, who have a mixed history in jazz. “My experience has been that 80 to 90 percent of prodigies don’t go ahead and succeed,” Gary Burton, a former boy wonder on the vibraphone, told me a few years ago. “Something either happens or doesn’t happen as you go from adolescence into adulthood. Some people just stop right there and don’t go any further. You always have your fingers crossed when it’s someone who is super-talented as a kid.”

You could point to Burton as a glowing exception, of course. You could also point to a few of his protégés-like guitarist Julian Lage, who waited years and turned down many offers before releasing his first album. A while back I asked Lage what advice he would offer a child prodigy like Joey, and he quickly hit upon an ideal of gracious humility in the face of public acclamation. “When people say, ‘You’re the greatest thing ever,’ that says way more about the person saying it than you,” he said. “It moves them. People like to share that with you. I do think it’s liberating to know that what anyone says doesn’t equate to any pressure at all. It’s a wonderful thing; it happens alongside you getting better.”

I had this whole complex calculus on my mind when I first wrote about Joey, producing a profile that lauded his extraordinary talent while confessing to some critical ambivalence. In one indication of his undeniable appeal as a human-interest story, the piece ended up on the front page of the New York Times. And by sheer coincidence, my lunch with Joey and his parents takes place one year to the day after its publication, which boosted his celebrity even as it sharpened the skepticism in some corners of the jazz community.

Joey, whose firsthand experience in the music has more to do with exhortations from encouraging elders, professes to be only dimly aware of any grumbling. “I never really try to feel it,” he says. “I never think about that. Not really.”

But Denny, for one, does think about it. “It’s always our hope that people will focus on his music, not just because he’s 12,” he says. “Seems like every time, it’s a proving ground.”

To the extent that this is a complaint, it’s a delicate one. All the fuss over Joey’s precocity may well be limiting, a distraction from his musicality. But without it, where would he be? Surely not on 60 Minutes, as his family is well aware. “For us it’s a ticket to experience freedom,” Denny says of Joey’s young career. “With his music we can travel, meet all different people from different backgrounds. This music brings people together.”

Still, he’s right about the proving ground. So it’s no coincidence that My Favorite Things opens with a nimble jog through “Giant Steps,” one of John Coltrane’s famous tests of harmonic and improvisational mettle. Or that Countdown is named after another one, from the same album.

If growth-that word again-is the standard by which an album should be judged, Countdown should be seen as an emphatic success. Like Joey’s debut, it was produced by Jason Olaine, the director of programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and mainly features a trio with Grenadier and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. There are thoughtfully rendered ballads by Billy Strayhorn (“Chelsea Bridge”) and Charlie Chaplin (“Smile”). Chris Potter, a former prodigy himself, turns up with his soprano saxophone on a charcoal-shaded cover of Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”

Joey’s soft clarity of touch, his rhythmic buoyancy and his harmonic sophistication-they all still flag him as a Hancock disciple, though he’s by no means a clone. On a springy version of the Thelonious Monk tune “Criss-Cross,” set up to shift between a halting prowl and full-tilt swing, the clearer precedent is early Harry Connick Jr. “Soul Dreamer,” a postbop original in drifting waltz time, points decisively in the direction of Chick Corea, as does a sprightly Afro-Caribbean workout titled “City Lights.”

These originals on Countdown-there’s also a tuneful entry, “Sunday Waltz,” that’s roughly equal parts Bill Evans and Bobby Timmons-reflect a self-improvement agenda. “I want to be a better composer,” Joey says. “Especially after I play with Wayne; he’s such a great influence.”

Joey’s process for writing music isn’t yet well developed, but it’s working. “Sometimes when I practice, I would just make up something like a song,” he says. “I really don’t plan it; it just flows through me. Sometimes my dad would stop me and say, ‘Oh, this could be a composition.'”

As for the album’s title track, it’s as bravura a showpiece as anyone could want. Set at a fast clip almost identical to Coltrane’s original, it features Joey in pure thoroughbred mode: He reels off a rhapsodic cadenza in tempo, slaloms through the harmonic labyrinth and brightly soars over his brisk accompaniment. You could nitpick the continuity and formal coherence of his solo, but don’t be shocked if this track earns him another Grammy nomination.

One comment you often hear about Joey, from critics or other jazz musicians, is that he should seek out mentorship as a sideman. Even Grenadier made this point in conversation last year. “I think it’s dangerous when somebody is the leader of a piano trio really early and doesn’t get that apprenticeship experience to learn how the instrument is used in a group context,” he said. “If he really wants to grow as a complete piano player, he’s going to need to find that situation. He’s got plenty of time to do it, and I hope the opportunity arises and he takes it.”

When I bring up this line of argument with Joey, citing the inspired way he played with Shorter, he looks a little bemused. “Well, I would love to play more with people like Wayne Shorter,” he says. “Of course, I may not tour with them. I mean, I’m still a kid, you know. I love to play with elders and people before me. But, you know, I have a different path than other musicians.”

This is demonstrably true, and there are reminders all the time. A week or so after our lunch, Joey returns to Indonesia for the first time in two years. There he reconnects with extended family, navigates the reception of a returning hero and performs to an audience of 2,000, leading a trio with bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Then in June, he celebrates his 13th birthday onstage at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in Upstate New York.

His achievement with Countdown feels more like a continuation than another breakthrough, which is one reason it will probably be less of a phenomenon than his monster debut. But a seasoned jazz listener should be able to recognize the progress he has made. And while there’s diligent effort behind his ongoing development, there’s also a less tangible motor, which Joey attributes to the divine. “This music is really spiritual,” he says. “Especially with my belief. Because He gave me this talent, to play like this and to understand this music.”

“If I may say,” Denny interjects, “it’s a big part of his music. Before we practice, we pray.”

So perhaps it’s a sense of destiny, or guidance from on high, that keeps Joey so focused on his personal trajectory, tuning out all of the noise that could so easily intrude. At one point in our conversation, I list a few of his recent milestones-the Grammys, the White House, the media acclaim-and ask whether there’s any new goal he has his sights on.

“I just want to keep playing,” he replies after a moment. “I just want to keep playing and make especially this music that unites people, to make them happy. I think my goal is to use this talent that God has given me, and I want to bring back to Him. And for the people that love me, to give to them the music. That’s really it.”

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