Sublime performance from a tween

PHOTO: JOANNA KWA

REVIEW / CONCERT

JOEY ALEXANDER TRIO

Esplanade Recital Studio/Tuesday

Age is just a number for the Balinese- born jazz pianist Joey Alexander.

The 12-year-old wunderkind may be about as tall as a fully extended microphone stand, but many among the world's jazz legends consider him a giant. They include Wynton Marsalis, who has called Alexander "my hero" and invited him to perform at New York's Lincoln Center in 2014.

Listening to a fully warmed-up Joey Alexander was like having the hand of a beloved caress your cheek when all was well with the world.

In January this year, his maiden album My Favorite Things soared to No. 59 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned him two nominations at this year's Grammys.

Last month, he performed at the White House on International Jazz Day with Grammy greats Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding.

And to think the bespectacled boy taught himself to play the piano, as he says, "from the heart" at the age of six.

In his Singapore debut on Tuesday, he began the 70-minute concert with a lyrical, pared-down take on The Old Rugged Cross, his long fingers pressing down hard on the ivories at first, although the resulting tone was toasty and altogether sublime.

He was fully warmed up after this, his touch so tender and his poignant inflections of such finesse that listening to him was like having the hand of a beloved caress your cheek when all was well with the world.

His second number was his showpiece, John Coltrane's Giant Steps. He prefaced it with, "It's very difficult to play", and ended it in a masterly celebration of syncopation.

He followed that up with Herbie Hancock's now-strutting, now- pensive Maiden Voyage, which he also declared difficult.

Shoulders hunched, body swaying from side to side and with his right foot tapping non-stop, he moved carefully, almost meditatively, up and down the keys.

His technique was so effective that it seemed he used hardly any force to attack the keys in shaping melodic peaks.

"I'm okay now," he said shyly after it, to cheers from the 245-strong audience.

His approach to improvisation was to unleash lush clusters of chords and glissandos, mainly in the middle register, and then coaxing the sweetest joy from the top notes.

This was most evident on his two original compositions, the Hancock- like City Lights and the deceptively simple Sunday Waltz.

In between, the winsome boy with the "aw, shucks" manner applauded his bandmates, percussionist Jeff "Tain" Watts and double bassist Dan Chmielinski, who stayed resolutely in the background while plucking the strings and walloping the skins like the best of them.

Alexander dug deep into their grooves, with a ken for nuances that was beguiling in one so young. His intuition was reminiscent of pianist Ramsey Lewis, crooner Gregory Porter or the Surinamer whiz Etienne "A.T.N." Stadwijk.

In between takes, he drank deep from his water bottle, perhaps to calm his nerves. His last song for the evening was Thelonius Monk's Rhythm-A-Ning, which had the joint jumping as he trilled away on the keys while standing up.

To a resounding standing ovation, the trio obliged with a funky, bluesy encore that was an anthem to wildcats on the prowl, which drew another standing ovation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'Sublime performance from a tween'. Print Edition | Subscribe