The child jazz prodigy who hates being labelled a prodigy

Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander - at just 13 - is lighting up jazz

Joey Alexander is in constant demand as a performer

Joey Alexander is in constant demand as a performer

 

Joey Alexander has the world at his feet: his first two albums have attracted Grammy nominations; his playing partners and musical mentors are some of the biggest names in jazz; and he has recently relocated from his native Bali in Indonesia to an apartment in downtown Manhattan. The thing is, Joey Alexander’s feet aren’t that big, which is what you would expect of a 13-year-old boy.

He has said in previous interviews how much he dislikes the “prodigy” tag, so I try to speak to him as I would to any other musician. The big question is whether he is as mature in conversation as he sounds on record.

The answer is yes and no. He is still a 13-year-old teenager, and one who is communicating in a second language. He is unfailingly polite, but his answers tend to be short and factual (rather than long and philosophical, which is the approach favoured by his older colleagues in jazz). When we speak, via FaceTime, it’s a few days ahead of his 14th birthday and I ask him if he has any plans for his birthday.

“Stay home,” he says, “stay in New York.” Then silence.

What does he want for his birthday?

“For me, God gave me health and music, this special music, and I don’t really have much to ask, because I’m really thankful for the grace of God that he has given me and my family.”

When it comes to talking about music, however, it’s obvious that there is a sophisticated mind at work. There is none of the hyperbole or reductionism you might expect in a teenage boy. Instead, there is a humility and sense of purpose that takes some musicians a lifetime to learn.

“I’m always trying to improve myself, you know, to be more patient, how I play, how I touch every note, always trying to keep patience in the ‘feel’, so that I’m not overdoing it.”

His big break came at the age of eight when he was asked to perform for pianist Herbie Hancock at a Unesco event in Jakarta. How did he feel, playing for one of the icons of the music?

“Firstly, I was pretty shocked. I was really happy and a little bit nervous. He was one of my inspirations.”

With the encouragement of Hancock, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, in 2014 Alexander and his parents (his father is an amateur jazz musician) left the paradise of Bali behind for the bright lights of New York city.

Watching early videos of Alexander as an eight-year-old, he certainly sounds good but is still just a kid. Then sometime around the age of 9 or 10, he seems to have turned a corner. Was there a moment when it all fell into place for him?

“Well, for sure it’s a process, even now,” he answers thoughtfully. “I think the more I play, the more I learn how to get better. I don’t practice that much, but I try to do two or three hours every day. Practice is not always easy, but I think that challenges me to get better through that. You know, my dad is always with me, even when I’m practising, and I always try to do new things. I think when I practise, I try to create my own sound.”

As the conversation goes on, Alexander becomes more relaxed and it’s clear that he’s a likeable, well-adjusted kid. His parents seem supportive rather than pushy, and at an age when most of us were still trying to come to terms with the world, he seems sure of his decision to dedicate his childhood to music.

Alexander is in constant demand as a performer. The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was also a child prodigy, sees him as a youth ambassador for jazz. And the young pianist has just released his second album, Countdown, which features major jazz stars such as saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Larry Grenadier.

It’s hard not to wonder what lies ahead. If he can play like this at 13, what will he be like when he actually grows up? Will all the praise and attention go to his young head and will he go off the rails at 17? Will he still want to play at all? What does the future hold for Joey Alexander?

“I’m still going to play the music that I love,” he says. “I’m going to keep swinging, that’s for sure. Keep composing, keep arranging, always trying to be better.”

Joey Alexander plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin on July 12th

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