No Kidding: This Kid’s a Genius!

Joey Alexander 1

When I woke up this morning I saw a blurb on MSN news saying, “Jazz Prodigy, 12, Stuns World.” Oh yeah, sure, I said to myself. I’ve heard this song before, it’s from an old familiar score. Remember some of the other “prodigies” of the past decade? How did they work out for you? Yeah, that’s what I thought. So I went to YouTube and watched-listened to this child prodigy—Joey Alexander—play My Favorite Things.

No joke. This young man has talent. He also has superb left-right hand coordination, which allows him to play divergent lines against each other. He uses many “rootless” chords, as did the late Bill Evans. And he swings. Put it all together, and you have a fully mature jazz pianist who isn’t even fully developed physically.

You talk about a phenomenon. Josiah Alexander Sila—his full name—was born on June 25, 2003 in Bali, Indonesia. His father, an amateur musician, introduced young Joey to jazz from classic albums he had in the house, and Joey taught himself to play piano on a miniature electric keyboard his father bought him. Joey cites his main musical influences as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Harry Connick, Jr. and Herbie Hancock, but also loves the music of Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Horace Silver and McCoy Tyner.

Listening to young Alexander play is simply astonishing. I first sampled him in the YouTube video of My Favorite Things, but then moved on to a live concert from July 2014 in Denmark (when he was only 11 years old!) with bassist Matthias Svensson and drummer Anders Mogensen, two of Scandinavia’s top-drawer professionals, and was convinced. This young man is the real deal. He’s at a level that many a grown jazz pianist with decades of training and experience are, and to my ears he can only get better…which is like saying that Beethoven at age 12 wasn’t quite as great an artist as Beethoven at age 27.

In the live set, taped at The Standard Jazz Club in Copenhagen, Alexander plays a number of jazz standards, several of which are at a very demanding level of one’s knowledge of harmony and how to improvise, particularly Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge and Coltrane’s Giant Steps. These are not easy pieces for many pianists to improvise on, regardless of age or technical level, but Alexander does so with precocious ease. Except on loud, uptempo numbers, his hands remain fairly flat, the fingers even with the keys as he plays. He uses a flat-hand approach to chords, a curled-finger approach to single-note runs. He uses little or no pedal, preferring a crisp, clean sound—but then again, in the video I saw, I’m not even certain that his legs are long enough for his fet to reach the pedals with regularity. Moreover, his improvisations make logical sense; they don’t just ramble via flashy passages. His playing has real substance. Each chorus is not only well constructed in and of itself, but builds on the chorus(es) preceding it. Thus I hear in young Alexander not only a finer pianist in the future, but also a potential jazz composer.

Joey Alexander 2Without having had the chance to interview Alexander, I don’t know if his grasp of music is entirely intuitive, i.e. by ear, or if he studied harmony somewhere along the way and worked on it. Certainly, his grasp of this aspect of improvisation is at an extraordinarily high level for his age, although not at quite the level of proficiency of such mature masters as Earl Hines or Art Tatum. But our first exposure to Hines on recordings was at age 18, seven years older than Alexander is here, and our first exposure to Tatum at age 22! That’s quite a difference in both the level of their experience and their intellectual maturity. What Alexander does may be instinctive, but if so he is miles ahead (no pun intended for Miles Davis fans) of anyone I can think of at this age of development. Was Bill Evans this good at age 11? Or Oscar Peterson, or Lennie Tristano? Were you? We’ll never know for sure, but somehow I doubt it.

And think of this from a physiological perspective: at age 12, his muscles and bones aren’t even fully developed yet. He hasn’t finished going through puberty. Yet here he is, a superb jazz improviser able to play with seasoned professionals.

Where Alexander goes from here is anyone’s guess. Remember that many child prodigies, particularly pianists (even in the classical world, like Shura Cherkassky), never explore more harmonically advanced music as they grow older. They stay within their comfort zone, what made them famous. But young Alexander is already more harmonically advanced than Grace Kelly was, or is today, and a full understanding of harmony is always the key that unlocks the doors of composition and more adventurous improvisation for a young talent. Hines and Tatum never really had “stages of development,” as they arrived fully-formed as geniuses on the scene. But again I ask: who knows what they were like at age 11? I sure don’t. And it will be at least another five years (Alexander turns 13 on June 25 of this year) before Joey is 18. A lot can happen in five years.

The bottom line is: I don’t see him being a flash in the pan; he’s already too good for that. This young man is a first-class musician you need to keep your eye on.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of jazz and classical music


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