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

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The Next Step

JazzTimes - GEOFFREY HIMES writes….“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.

“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.

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.”

“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.”

Photo by Stevie Chris