Jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander misses Bali where he was born

Joey Alexander arriving for the 58th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February. He was nominated in two categories at the ceremony, but did not win.
Joey Alexander arriving for the 58th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February. He was nominated in two categories at the ceremony, but did not win. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Joey Alexander, 12, will be playing in Singapore next Tuesday

When he was six, Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander could play a tune by jazz icon Thelonious Monk by ear.

Today, the 12-year-old jazz prodigy has accomplished a lot more than musicians many times his age. He has been feted by American jazz greats such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and is able to hold his own in performances with living legends such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

The pint-sized pianist will be in Singapore to play his debut show here at the Esplanade Recital Studio next Tuesday.

There are just a little over 200 tickets for sale because of the size of the venue. But the audience will be sitting up close.

"For sure, it's gotta be swinging," he says of the concert in a telephone interview from New York, where he is now based.

  • BOOK IT / JOEY ALEXANDER TRIO

  • WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio

    WHEN: Tuesday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $168 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

His American debut at the Jazz At Lincoln Center's gala in 2014 put him in the spotlight in the jazz world.

At the Grammy Awards this year, Joey was up for two awards at the ceremony - Best Jazz Instrumental Album for his first album, My Favorite Things, released in May last year, and Best Improvised Jazz Solo for Giant Steps, a song off the album. Although he won neither - the awards went to American jazz-rock guitarist John Scofield, 64, and American jazz bassist Christian McBride, 43, respectively - his brief performance at the ceremony exposed him to a worldwide audience.

His live rendition of City Lights, an original composition inspired by his new hometown of New York, got him a standing ovation from an audience full of music stars and industry bigwigs.

My Favorite Things is also a bestseller, going to No. 1 on Billboard's jazz albums charts in January, as well as peaking at an impressive 17th position on the overall digital album charts.

Things have been moving quickly in the past year for the musician and every other month seems to bring a new high in his young career.

At the end of last month, he performed for United States President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle at The International Jazz Day Global Concert 2016 at the White House.

"They were very nice, he's a great president," he says.

His performance with Shorter, one of the genre's most acclaimed saxophone players, and Grammy- winning bassist Esperanza Spalding counts as one of his biggest achievements to date.

"It was kind of really crazy to be playing with Mr Wayne Shorter," he says. "But it was really my honour and also my dream to play with him and be at the White House. I guess it was one of the greatest experiences that I've had."

He was born Josiah Alexander Sila in Denpasar, Bali, to parents who ran a tourism business on the Indonesian island. His father was an avid jazz fan and played many of the jazz CDs that he had accumulated from his years studying in New York.

The amateur pianist taught his son some basics when he was six, but most of the young pianist's music education came via listening to records and through watching YouTube videos.

"Every time I play, I focus on the moment and I just let it flow," Joey says.

He started jamming with jazz musicians in Bali and eventually with the larger jazz community in Jakarta.

At the age of nine, he won the grand prize in an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine.

Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, invited him to perform at the centre's 2014 gala after watching him in a YouTube video.

The gala performance earned him glowing reviews from press such as jazz magazine Down Beat and paved the way for more shows and his eventual move to New York.

In a glowing profile last year, The New York Times described him as "a thoughtful musician as well as a natural one, with a sophisticated harmonic palette and a dynamic sensitivity".

When he is not playing music or attending school online, he says he loves swimming and misses the beaches in Bali. He loves movies too ("I like action, animation, comedy and documentaries about music"), but has not seen anything recently and hopes to head to the cinema after the tour ends.

When it comes to food, the wunderkind is like many of his peers.

Asked about what he missed most about his home country's cuisine after moving to the United States in 2014, he says: "Actually you know what, I like American food, so it's not that hard for me. It's not very healthy, but I like burgers and Italian food."

He practises on the piano for about three hours a day.

"I still listen to Thelonious Monk and, of course, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, John Coltrane, I still listen to those guys. I always listen to gospel music, Aretha Franklin is my favourite."

Ask him where he sees himself in another 10 years, he pauses to think. "I think I'm just thankful to be doing what I'm doing now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2016, with the headline 'Jazz child prodigy promises swinging show'. Print Edition | Subscribe