Joey Alexander, an 11-Year-Old Jazz Sensation, Who Hardly Clears the Piano’s Sightlines
The cheers rang loud and long for Joey Alexander after he had played his last delicate piano chord in a recent sold-out set at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.
Beaming at his standing ovation, he stood between his bassist and his drummer, intent on taking a group bow. The scene was sweetly comical: The top of his head barely grazed their chests.
Which only made sense, given that Joey, jazz’s latest media star, is 11 years old.
This was far from his first turn in the spotlight. He became an overnight sensation — not too strong a term — with his guest performance a year ago at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala, which won him rave reviews. His debut album, “My Favorite Things” (Motéma), is out this week, and he is booked for a series of notable appearances in the coming months, including one at the Newport Jazz Festival in August.
Discovered in Jakarta, Indonesia, about three years ago, Joey moved with his parents to New York last year, with the help of jazz luminaries like the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who called him “my hero” on Facebook and with whom he now shares a manager.
It’s all part of the improbable life of a child prodigy. Joey may be the most talked-about one that jazz has seen in a while, though he is hardly alone. There’s José André Montaño, a 10-year-old blind pianist from Bolivia; Kojo Roney, a 10-year-old drummer who had a concert residency last month in Brooklyn; and Grace Kelly, 22, an alto saxophonist who made her first album at 12. The list goes on, with some prodigies developing major careers and others falling short of their early promise.
It is natural to harbor mixed feelings about this phenomenon, and for a critic it’s all but imperative. The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading. All the attention lavished on them can distort the ecology of an art form, even while bringing encouraging news about its survival. And, as with any celebrated young talent, there is a question of intention: Who benefits most from the renown these performers receive? Is there a way to marvel at mind-blowing precocity without stunting an artist’s development?
Joey looked like a cherub several years ago when his reputation began to build in jazz circles: small in stature, with a thick mop of black hair over a face that still showed traces of baby fat. He is taller now, though the sight of him at a grand piano can still be disconcerting, especially when you hear what he plays.
In person he comes across like any polite, intelligent middle-school boy with highly focused interests. He showed up for a stroll in Central Park last week in jeans and a Joy Division T-shirt. “Um, I don’t know the band so much,” he admitted, “but I like the shirt.”
He clearly loves and respects his art form. “Jazz is a hard music,” he said in response to a question about heightened expectations, “and you have to really work hard and also have fun performing; that’s the most important thing.”
Jazz prodigies rarely have full command of their artistry. They tend to exhibit a superabundance of technique and core knowledge but a more deficient supply of the intangibles — what jazz partisans mean when they praise with the word “maturity.” And even the most virtuoso interpretation of composed material is of limited use in jazz, at least when it comes to a solo career.
For a jazz pianist, the mastery entails a staggering breadth of knowledge about harmony, rhythm and orchestration, all converging in an eloquent synthesis.
Joey Alexander has a handle on a good deal of that. “My Favorite Things,” produced by Jason Olaine, the director of programming and touring for Jazz at Lincoln Center, shows him to be a thoughtful musician as well as a natural one, with a sophisticated harmonic palette and a dynamic sensitivity.
On the album, Joey worked with top-tier players like the bassist Larry Grenadier. “I was wary,” Mr. Grenadier said of the invitation to record. “What I typically find with kid prodigies is that they come from this clinical, Western European way of accumulating knowledge. What I found with Joey is that he’s coming from a more intuitive, communal way of playing music, which is so beautiful to see.”
By and large the album is characterized by disarming self-possession, especially in light of its back story, which is hard to ignore. Joey, whose full name is Josiah Alexander Sila, was born in Bali, many miles from the nearest major jazz hub. His earliest encounters with jazz were through the CDs that his father, Denny Sila, had brought home in the 1990s, after earning a degree in finance at Pace University in Manhattan.
He and Joey’s mother, Fara, ran a tourism business. They are soft-spoken, friendly and unassuming: seemingly the farthest thing from stage parents, although they take clear pride in Joey’s talent. As for his career, “We’re flowing with it,” Mr. Sila said over lunch in Central Park. “We never expected anything.”
Joey began playing piano at 6, picking out a Thelonious Monk tune by ear, which led Mr. Sila, an amateur pianist, to teach him some fundamentals. Beyond that, Joey recalled, “I heard records, and also YouTube, of course.”
He played at jam sessions in Bali and then in Jakarta, when his family moved there. At 8, he played for the pianist Herbie Hancock, who was in Jakarta as a Unesco good-will ambassador. (“You told me that you believed in me,” Joey recalled last fall, addressing Mr. Hancock at a gala for the Jazz Foundation of America, “and that was the day I decided to dedicate my childhood to jazz.”) He was 9 when he entered the first Master-Jam Fest, an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine. He won its grand prize.
Soon one of his YouTube videos caught the notice of Mr. Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who invited him to appear at the organization’s 2014 gala. Joey played a solo version of the Monk ballad “‘Round Midnight” as the finale, earning a standing ovation, glowing reviews and some influential supporters.
Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, the photographer and widow of the tennis star Arthur Ashe, invited Joey to perform at the Arthur Ashe Learning Center gala, for a crowd including former President Bill Clinton. She later introduced Joey and his family to Gordon Uehling III, founder of the CourtSense Tennis Training Center; he has put them up at his estate in Alpine, N.J., where Novak Djokovic often stays during the U.S. Open. (Joey has access to a Steinway there, which he plays when he isn’t catching up on school online.)
Jazz at Lincoln Center sees not only a prodigy, but also an ambassador. “We are really interested in incorporating Joey into our educational outreach,” Mr. Olaine said, “to get him out into middle schools and play in front of kids his own age. He could inspire young people to listen to and enjoy jazz music.”
Still, the salient question with a musician as young and good as this is whether it’s premature to pursue a solo career. Normally, a prodigy learns at the side of the masters, Mr. Olaine said. “But Joey is such an extraordinary case that I don’t think any of us have ever seen before. He’s not a fully formed musician yet; we don’t know who he’s going to turn out to be. But right now, he’s ready to be a leader.”
That may be true. But there was room for growth in Joey’s recent trio set. Working with the drummer Sammy Miller and the bassist Russell Hall, who appear on his album, he delved into ballads, blues and standards — including “Giant Steps,” the John Coltrane étude whose harmonic intricacies have long been a proving ground for improvisers. (It’s the opening track on Joey’s album.)
The tune reached an impressive fever pitch, eliciting hollers, but during the buildup, Joey wasn’t always on the surest rhythmic footing. An original, “Ma Blues,” was cute but derivative. And while he fashioned a beautifully restive intro to “Monk’s Mood,” his solo didn’t address the song’s internal architecture, occasionally settling for a rote blues lick.
There’s a reason even the most dazzling jazz prodigies serve apprenticeships. This has been true for Gadi Lehavi, from Israel, and Beka Gochiashvili, from Georgia — pianists accustomed to adulation since childhood, both now 19, with heavy sideman credits. It was true for Julian Lage, a guitarist who received national attention as early as 8, yet prefaced his solo career with years of mentoring by the vibraphonist Gary Burton, a former prodigy himself.
For all his exceptional talent, Joey is a prime candidate for similar counsel.Asked at one point to recall treasured advice from a jazz elder, he was momentarily at a loss for words. “You know,” he said finally, his eyes lighting up, “one thing people always say to me: ‘Keep playing.’”
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