Piano prodigy Joey Alexander caught the world’s attention back in 2016 when he appeared alongside Wynton Marsalis for a segment on 60 Minutes. “No one has ever seen a person play with this sophistication and ability to invent something cohesive [like Alexander],” proclaimed Marsalis, “jazz had no history of pre-puberty prodigies.”
Alexander began playing piano at six, started as a professional at 12, and his albums have netted three Grammy Award nominations as a teenager. The Bali-born jazz sensation is now 18 with six albums under his belt and is touring his latest release, Origin.
In our pre-show interview, he told me how proud he is of this album. “I really put my heart into this project. I feel it showcases me as a composer. I’ve been working on this before the pandemic, and the album embraces the frustration of not being able to get out and perform for two years. The challenge was how do you take that frustration and turn it into something positive and something inspirational? Origin is definitely my musical offering.”
Last Wednesday, Alexander arrived at the Kahilu Theatre about four hours before his evening show and was accompanied by his parents, Denny and Farah. Dad supervised the soundcheck with the theatre’s audio tech while mom shot a cellphone video of her son during the exhilarating rehearsal.
Alexander played the theatre’s prized nine-foot concert grand piano and an electric Fender Rhodes on loan from local music teacher Gary Washburn. The upright bass was also a loaner, thanks to Delphina Dorrance of the Blue Dragon Restaurant.
A few days before his show, the theatre offered free admission to kids 8-18 accompanied by an adult with a paid ticket. I asked Joey what he hoped the young crowd would take away from his concert. “I hope a message of unity, learning to work together, and building each other up into something bigger than yourself.”
Alexander’s trio featured bassist Kris Funn and drummer John Davis. Like the young pianist, they started playing music early and came from musical families.
Baltimore-born Kris Funn began playing the trumpet at four and took up the double bass at 14, and by 23, he was touring internationally with Pharoah Sanders, Jeff Lorber, and many jazz greats.
Davis picked up his first pair of drumsticks at six and later attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, where he began studying under jazz education legend John Riley.
You could see how well the trio’s chemistry worked during the show. While Joey stretched out on a spirit-pumping solo, his face winched at notes he hit like a seasoned jazz pianist impacted by the weight of the combination of chords. His eyes glanced back and forth at the bassist as if to say, “This is where we’re going next. Follow me.”
Alexander paused for some fun moments and smiled while his rhythm section took individual solos. “I understand the other musicians, and we understand each other. We’re like one family when we do it well.”
His early love for jazz came from his father’s record collection. Alexander cites jazz legends like Monk, Ellington, and Hancock as influences. “But it wasn’t only jazz. I got inspiration from gospel recordings by Aretha Franklin. And today, I’m listening to Eddie Van Halen, getting to know his music better, and really becoming more of a fan.”
Except for the classic “Over the Rainbow,” Alexander’s setlist was filled with originals. You could see the enthusiastic audience watching intensely as the young phenomenon floated lightly on the keys while “channeling the groove,” as he calls it.
“I always try to channel the groove and pray to God for the best that is to come.”
With loud cheers throughout the show and a standing ovation at the end, Alexander and his trio left their mark in Waimea.
Listen to a podcast interview with Joey Alexander.
Notes & Links
Dear Autumn | Winter Blues | Summer Rising | Over the Rainbow | Angel Eyes | Remembering | Promise of Spring |
Concert date: 26/May/ 2022
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby