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The Next Step

During the pandemic, Joey Alexander returned to home ground—and blossomed as a composer

Joey Alexander
Photo by Stevie Chris

“Midnight Waves,” a highlight of Joey Alexander’s sixth album, Origin, describes the nocturnal ocean off Bali, where the teenaged pianist and his parents returned home to sit out part of the pandemic. The family had lived on the island until 2011 when the eight-year-old son’s prodigious keyboard talents had necessitated a move to the national capital of Jakarta—and two and a half years after that to New York.

That latter move had kicked off a whirlwind six years of five albums, three Grammy nominations, international tours and a deluge of media attention. But COVID brought all of that to a screeching halt. The son and his parents got off the career treadmill, got out of New York and went back to Indonesia to decompress and decide on their next moves. Alexander was able to go to the beach, watch the moon add its icing to the incoming waves, and focus on what he most wanted from his music.

“We all need that time frame when we can rest and rejuvenate,” he says. “I needed to reflect on these past years. Sometimes we pass by the big moments in our lives and the small moments too, because we get sidetracked by all the busyness. Sometimes I forget to pause and remember what has happened. It was a tough time for all of us, so we escaped to Bali for five months to clear our minds and make a fresh start.”

By “all of us,” he’s referring to himself and his parents, Denny and Fara Sila, who have lived with Alexander since his birth in 2003 through his moves to Jakarta and then New York to his 19th birthday in June at the family’s newish apartment in Baltimore. His father is still Alexander’s closest musical adviser, and his mother still acts as de facto road manager. During our interview in the apartment, she stayed busy with papers nearby but only spoke up when her son needed a name or a date.

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“When the pandemic hit, I had that feeling of not knowing what lay ahead,” Alexander confesses. “It was an inspiring moment. I had to tell myself, ‘I don’t know what’s next.’ We were living near the ocean, so I could hear the tranquility of the waves through the window. I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I write about something that’s right in front of me?’”

What he wanted, he realized, was to be known as more than a child prodigy who could play jazz piano at a level unheard of for one so young. He wanted to be known as a composer. He had recorded more originals on each of his successive albums, and he wanted to devote the entirety of his next project to his own compositions. And one of them would be “Midnight Waves,” a musical evocation of the scene before him on the beach.

He conjured up the scene with a rippling figure in his left hand and a right-hand motif that resembled the bubbling foam as the waves crested. But there was more to the tune than mere sonic description; there was a feeling of weariness and the grateful relief of putting that exhausting work behind him for the time being. It’s not easy to invest an engaging jazz tune with such emotion—especially when you won’t turn 20 till the summer of 2023.

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In many ways, such maturity as a composer at 19 is as impressive as the command of the keyboard that Alexander showed at 11. He recorded “Midnight Waves” as a piano-trio piece with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Kendrick Scott at New York’s Sear Studio during the week of his 18th birthday, in the summer of 2021.

“I was trying to figure out how to get the musicians into the mindset of the piece,” he says. “They had never played this music before; this was their first impression of it. I was trying to communicate on a personal level, because I like to see myself in the song. But I like to see other people as well, and I was very happy with the musical insights that Larry and Kendrick brought to the piece.”

“The music is a representation of who he is,” Grenadier comments by phone from Switzerland, “not just as a player but also as a person. He’s a very spiritual dude. He’s able to use that connection in the music. The tunes are pretty complete; he wrote out some stuff for us. They’re realized, so it’s up to us to interpret that. The composition is there, it’s just our version that has to be decided.”

Joey Alexander
Photo by Stevie Chris

“Alexander insists that he’s always wanted to be a composer. Even his 2015 debut album, My Favorite Things, released when he was 11, featured one original among the standards by Thelonious Monk, Harold Arlen, John Coltrane and the like. The 2016 follow-up, Countdown, included three originals. The 2017 live recording, Joey. Monk. Live!, was an all-Monk affair, but the third studio album, 2018’s Eclipse, contained six originals. Alexander wrote 10 of the 12 tracks on 2020’s Warna and all 10 of the pieces on his latest release, Origin.

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“I wanted to write my own music from the start,” he says, “but early on I still had so much to learn, so I held myself back. I wanted to play Coltrane and Monk first, so it took a moment for me to stretch out as a writer. I always wanted to share my stories, but now I have more to say, so this might be the right time and right place.”

Of course, what first caught everyone’s attention was his incongruously mature playing at such an early age. Even when his blue tennis shoes couldn’t reach the pedals from his cranked-up-high piano bench at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2015, he could already do more than just play fast and accurately. The velocity was there when he needed it, but more often he was able to employ punctuation and dynamics to coax real feeling out of his pieces.

When the pandemic hit, I had the feeling of not knowing what lay ahead. It was an inspiring moment.

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Herbie Hancock had been impressed when he stumbled upon an eight-year-old Alexander in Jakarta. A year later, the kid was leading a trio at the Jakarta Jazz Festival, and a year after that he won the all-ages Grand Prize at a festival in Odesa, Ukraine. A year after that, Wynton Marsalis invited Alexander to play at Lincoln Center’s 2014 gala. Motéma Records signed him to a contract, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jason Olaine produced the My Favorite Things album with such heavy hitters as Grenadier (Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny) and Ulysses Owens Jr. (Christian McBride).

“The first thing that impressed me, obviously, was that this guy could play amazingly well at such an early age,” Grenadier now says about those first sessions. “But that’s the easy answer. The idea of his age quickly disappeared as soon as we started. It became more like, here’s another interesting piano player to play with. He’s gotten better since, but even then he was really good, not just in the big things but also in the little things like touch and timing. He was like Ahmad Jamal; he knew how to set something up and let it simmer.

“He was already going for something different than being just another bebop pianist. That’s usually a thing that comes later. Most students are taking in so much information and it takes a while to filter through that and find themselves. Joey seemed to have already done that. He didn’t play like anyone else. Most pianists have gone through classical music and then switched to jazz. Joey wasn’t like that; he went directly to jazz.”

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Meeting Alexander for the first time since 2015, one is struck by how the short, chubby middle-school-age kid has lengthened into a taller, thinner college-age adolescent. On the seventh floor of his apartment building, in a nicely furnished, piano-dominated room overlooking Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, he is wearing blue jeans, pink socks and a gray, zippered sweatshirt.

“I played the Keystone Korner two nights in the fall of 2021,” he recalls, “and we stayed in Baltimore for two extra days to look around. Immediately we felt at home, and we rented this place soon after. New York had given me a lot: the drive to be creative, to always be one step ahead of the game. But I feel at peace here; it’s not as frantic as New York. That change of pace was something I needed at this time. The Keystone is a hub for the jazz community here. I can drop by and see my friends like Bill Charlap and Christian Sands play there.”

What hasn’t changed since his earlier incarnation are the thick-frame glasses and the sheaf of dark hair hanging over his forehead. His music too has echoes of his earlier work. The fluid fingering, the unshowy confidence and the melodic instincts of his prodigy days are still apparent. What’s new is a willingness to depart from comfortable harmonies and expected development to build tension in a piece. And out of that tension grows the drama that give his newer compositions more weight.

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“Instead of the AABA form, sometimes I’ll try an ABAB form,” he explains. “That may seem funny, but I try to be open to different approaches. As a composer, you can control the narrative, and it’s okay to make changes along the way. I don’t want to be locked into the way it’s always been done. The old ways are effective, but they’re not the only way to do it. The important thing is to play with feeling.”

“Midnight Waves” is a good example. He suggests the experience of recuperating from a draining few years by creating musical phrases that lead up to the brink of a resolution but then delay it for a beat or two, as if fatigue were causing the narrator to falter for a moment. And when the ending does land, it provides that much more satisfaction for having overcome an obstacle.

“When I’m composing,” he says, “I sit down at the piano and play until I find something I like. I’ll record that and listen back. Then I’ll develop the piece from that theme until it becomes a composition. Along the way, of course, there will be changes, because I try to be open and find ways to say more with less. If it’s a blues tune, it can all happen quickly, because I know the changes. But tunes like ‘Midnight Waves,’ ‘On the Horizon’ and ‘Winter Blues’ take more time to write, because they’re longer and contain more layers.”

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“Winter Blues” is one of four season-themed pieces on the recent album, joining “Dear Autumn,” “Promise of Spring” and “Summer Rising.” Unlike Vivaldi’s, Alexander’s four seasons upend our assumptions for each time of year. “Winter Blues,” for example, isn’t the gray, icy music you might anticipate; instead it offers an ebullient tune over bouncy rhythms. It’s not a reflection of January but rather an antidote to it.

“I tried to reverse people’s expectations,” Alexander admits. “Winter’s a time when people don’t like to go outside because it’s really cold, so they stay inside. So I try to give them that happy, danceable feeling. I like to surprise the listener, and in the process I often surprise myself.”

The recorded version features a quintet, with saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Gilad Hekselman joining Grenadier and Scott. Alexander plays both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes, and when the push-and-pull, 6/8 theme climaxes in solos on tenor, guitar and Rhodes, it sounds more than a little like Aja-period Steely Dan. There’s even a coda of free-form improv. It’s a long way from the pre-Wynton jazz canon where the young pianist began.

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“Chris plays his ass off on that song,” Alexander agrees. “It’s important to remember the past but just as important to make new memories. I’m making them with these musicians. I want each album to have a different sound, a different feel, and that’s hard to do—to sound different but still connected to what came before. It’s the musicians who play on each one who make it different. I find musicians by word of mouth, but they have to be open to new possibilities. They have to know the value of a moment of silence but also be able to react to what I’m playing.”

I wanted to write my own music from the start, but early on I still had so much to learn, so I held myself back.

Those moments of silence are crucial, because the pianist is seeking a vocal-like quality for his melodies. And characteristic of such vocals are the pauses a singer or a speaker takes between phrases, and the accents that emphasize some words over others. Alexander’s recent instrumentals do this quite effectively.

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“Recently I’ve been digging more into some non-jazz music by Burt Bacharach, Michel Legrand, and the Beatles,” he reveals. “By listening to their music, I get a sense of what a great melody is. It makes me aim for that vocal quality. As musicians, our instruments are our words, and we have to speak through them. If you’re honest and what comes out is beautiful, that says a lot about you.”

“The compositions are an extension of the way he plays the piano,” Grenadier adds. “His musical fingerprint is translating to his compositions. He’s not reinventing the wheel; he’s using the song forms of the past but putting his own stamp on them. As you age, you get more confident speaking in your own voice, in your sound, touch, all the ways we make music, so it makes sense that Joey is increasingly present in his compositions. It’s going to be interesting to watch him grow as a composer, more life experiences, more interaction with musicians. The channel is open now; he just as to feed it.”

Part of being a jazz composer, he soon discovered, is working out the relationship of the notated passages to the improvised sections. Some things you want to happen every time, so you write them down for the band. Some things you want to happen differently each time, so you leave room for solos. How the one interacts with the other is crucial.

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“It’s always best to put the composition and the improvisation together,” he says. “Becoming a better composer helped me become a better improviser. Because I’m always looking for fresh lines when I write, they now come to me when I’m soloing without even thinking about it. On the other hand, a better song can inspire us to improvise better. When I’m performing my own songs, I feel I have more freedom to change them. When I play a piece that’s been played by so many, I feel limited by the way it’s been done before. I always try to find myself in every piece, but it’s harder.”

“With tunes you improvise on,” Grenadier points out, “you want harmony that’s interesting enough that you don’t mind repeating it and form that’s interesting enough that you stay committed to it. It’s tricky to create compact forms that fit on one page and yet are interesting harmonically like the old standards. Joey’s coming more from that approach. You’re trying to improvise against the melody at first and then go somewhere from that. An improvisation should try to attain the quality of a melody that sings over the chords.”

A new boldness in Alexander’s compositions emerged on the 2018 album Eclipse. The 10-minute title track was an open-ended improvisation that found Charles Lloyd’s rhythm section of Eric Harland and Reuben Rogers responding to the pianist’s phrases and adding twists of their own.

Joey Alexander
Photos by Stevie Chris

 

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“We didn’t really know where it was going,” Alexander admits, “but that was exciting because it could be anything. We trusted each other that when they reacted to my vamps, somehow we would find a home where we could come together.”

Paradoxically, Eclipse was both looser and bolder, less prescribed and more ambitious. He was less worried about nailing down every detail beforehand and yet reaching for ever newer, ever stronger effects. The more assured he became of his composing, the more relaxed he became about his band’s improvising. This breakthrough led to the two albums with Kendrick and Grenadier—Warna and Origin—as well as his current live shows with bassist Kris Funn and drummer John Davis.

“When I bring in a new song,” he says, “I will share the charts with the musicians. But when we start playing, I want them to use their instincts rather than relying on the chart. I want them to play feelings, not just the notes. They hear different things than I do, and I want those different things on the record. I like to leave space for other people to come in and share the music with me—not just the other musicians but also the audience. Once the compositions are completed, I don’t really know how the music’s going to sound till I get together with the group. It’s such a relief when I realize, ‘Wow, this music is flying.’”

You can hear that on the new album, especially when Potter grabs hold of one of Alexander’s themes and takes off for a soaring solo—on soprano for “On the Horizon” and on tenor for “Rise Up.” On the latter tune, written in 9/8, the long measures seem to grease the momentum as the piece builds from tentative beginning to robust, collective improvisation at the end.

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“On this new album,” Grenadier confirms, “there were moments of him wanting to open things up. It wasn’t free-free, but it was free within the parameters of meter and key. He didn’t go to music school, so he doesn’t always know the terminology, so you have to figure out by what he wants by listening to what he plays more than what he says, which I dig, because it allows more possibilities; it’s not like everything else.

“It reminded me of back in history, when there would be territorial sounds: a St. Louis sound, a Kansas City sound, a Chicago sound. But that has gone by the wayside as we have access to all this information. But Joey has that kind of different signature. Maybe it’s because he was isolated from the jazz scene when he started playing. Maybe this is the start of the Bali sound.”

 

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Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.