By now Joey Alexander’s story is well known. He was born in Bali in 2003 and recorded his first album when he was 11. Since his relocation to the United States with his parents in 2014, he has been featured on major television programs (60 Minutes, The Today Show), toured the world and become the youngest jazz musician ever nominated for a Grammy.
Joey.Monk.Live! is his third recording, in a digital-only release. Our culture’s 24-hour news cycle creates a risk that Alexander could become yesterday’s headline. But his talent is still extraordinary. It may even be unprecedented. Wynton Marsalis believes that “there has never been anyone … who could play like that at his age.” Alexander’s domination of the piano keyboard is all but absolute, and his young mind teems with startling ideas.
A program of seven Monk compositions is his greatest challenge to date, for two reasons. First, these songs are icons. Second, Monk’s music deals with adult emotional complexities. Alexander has no problems with the first issue. He rephrases, reorganizes and redecorates Monk masterpieces with preternatural chops and the irreverent joyful innocence of childhood. “Evidence,” that awkward, halting tune, cruises into exhilarating double-time overdrive. (Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Willie Jones III do not serve as mature counselors to Alexander; instead, they incite him.) “Ugly Beauty,” Monk’s only waltz, no longer mournful, sings anew. “Rhythm-a-ning” is unleashed in an ecstasy of swing.
As for the second issue, no 14-year-old, however gifted, has the life experience to engage the spiritual depths of “’Round Midnight” (Alexander avoids the song’s dark hesitations and attaches a free, percussive, buoyant prologue) or to render a love story as tender and strange as “Pannonica.” He sometimes throws so many ideas at these songs that his improvisations lack continuity. What is continuous is this album’s capacity to make you grin with astonishment.