Joey Alexander’s “Warna”

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WARNA / ALEXANDER: Warna. Mosaic (of Beauty). Lonely Street. Downtime. Affirmation I. We Here.* ‘Tis Our Prayer. Our Story. Affirmation III. The Light. HENDERSON: Inner Urge. SUMMER: Fragile / Joey Alexander, pno; *Anne Drummond, fl; Larry Grenadier, bs; Kendrick Scott, dm; Luisito Quintero, perc / Verve 0848840

Jazz phenom Joey Alexander, the Indonesian-born pianist who became a sensation at age 13, is now a few years on in age (17, though this album was recorded when he was 16) and has graduated to a major label, Verve.

He is still an interesting improviser; so much is clear from the opening track which, like the album itself, is named after the Indonesian word for color. This is an apt title for both the song and the album as a whole, because as he had matured Alexander’s playing has become warmer and more colorful. It also retains a certain amount of the surprising energy that he had a couple of years ago on his last release; like the late Filipino pianist Bobby Enriquez, Alexander has some particularly wild outbursts in his improvisations. But “a certain amount” is all he has retained. With age has come, to my ears at least, a lessening of the kind of explosive playing he exhibited two years ago. It is not a serious impediment in today’s jazz world, where laid-back jazz apparently sells like hotcakes; I’m sure that this album will take off in sales; but somehow, Alexander’s inner tiger has been tamed.

Mind you, he’s still a fine jazz pianist. I’m not disparaging his skills in the least. It’s just that his wildness has been supplanted by a somewhat more sedate approach. Not all, but much, of his individuality is now suppressed in favor of a more reflective musical persona.

Perhaps the better integration of his trio is either a cause or a symptom of this. On his earlier releases, the bass and drums almost had to work overtime to catch up to Alexander’s explosiveness, but here they are tightly interwoven into the fabric of his playing. This, too, may be a result of maturity, but I certainly miss the old Alexander. The only earlier example who comes to mind at the moment is George Shearing. Those who have heard Shearing’s wild and unpredictable playing during his bebop years, 1946-49, will understand what I mean. By 1951 or ’52, give or take a few months, Shearing had settled into a cooler groove with his famous combo (the one with Margie Hyams on vibes) that took the world by storm—the Lullaby of Birdland group. The difference was that Shearing had a very distinctive touch; he almost sounded like a classical harpsichordist playing jazz, and his improvisations remained unique. Many tried to sound like Shearing, but almost none succeeded. Alexander does not sound as unique here as he formerly did, although there is a wild half-chorus on Lonely Street that sounds like his old self. The tiger is tamed, and only occasionally does he shed the leash and halter of conventional jazz to reclaim some of his younger vitality.

The question then arises, Why? Is it Alexander himself who has chosen to play this way, or was it perhaps a directive from Verve Records to fit in more? Considering the rather tame opening tracks, I was actually surprised to hear much more of the old Alexander come through on Downtime. This could pass for how he played a couple of years ago, but immediately following is Affirmation I, a ballad so insipid that at first I thought it was a mistake. Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge is next, a great performance that momentarily recaptures the Alexander of two years ago. For seven minutes and 16 seconds, I thought I was listening to one of his earlier albums, but by and large this set just sounded conventional. In We Here, flautist Anne Drummond is actually more interesting and exciting than the pianist.

I certainly wish him well in his career; he earned his jazz stripes early and proved his mettle legitimately. I just wish he could recapture more of the magic he had.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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