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Joey Alexander: My Favorite Things

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The only difficult part of writing about pianist Joey Alexander is avoiding the use of the phrase “for a kid.” As we do when we approach any prodigy-and jazz has seen many who’ve continued to grow as childhood faded-those of us with a few years on us naturally want to be kind. Who’d want to discourage a child with such promise?

But with this Indonesian lad, 11 years old when Motéma signed him last fall, there’s no need to patronize or overcompensate: Joey Alexander’s not good “for a kid,” he’s just good.

It’d be easy to turn on the skepticism, to ask how a person with such limited life experience could possibly empathize with the standards he includes on this debut: How could he possibly relate to “Lush Life,” “It Might as Well Be Spring” or “‘Round Midnight”? It’s a fair question, but a good listen to that last track obliterates any apprehension: Alexander is not just a gifted technician; he understands this music. To one of Monk’s signature tunes this pianist brings sensitivity, range and coloration. He never feels he has to over-impress; when he steps up the pace it’s handled sensibly and with appropriate restraint; when he expands beyond the root melody, he knows where he’s going and how to get back home. And he knows how to work with a band.

All but one track, an original he calls “Ma Blues,” will be familiar to anyone who’s been around the jazz block more than once: “Over the Rainbow,” Dizzy’s “Tour de Force,” “Giant Steps” (he’s confident enough to open with it) and the title track, of course also Coltrane-associated. Alexander arranged them all too.

Does he break any new ground? Not really. Not yet. But he more than holds his own, and it’s unlikely any listener not informed in advance of the player’s age would come close to guessing it. Now, of course, comes the hard part for Joey Alexander: developing a unique voice as he settles into his craft.

Originally Published