You'd never guess it by glancing at him on the streets. Standing on stage, Joey Alexander looks like any other ordinary middle school kid. Modest in height no more than waist high wearing moppy black hair. Even Joey's thick, blue rimmed glasses seemed slightly too large for his 12-year old face. A native of Indonesia, Joey grew up with his parents in Bali and Jakarta before moving to New York to pursue music full time.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to witness this child prodigy in the live at one of New York City's famed jazz halls. Sitting in the front row at a table directly behind the piano of one of New York City's iconic yet intimate performance venues, I couldn't help but notice the swathe of silver-haired couples sitting behind me. The room was filled to the brim with an occasional smattering of other peering, wide-eyed middle schoolers perched beside enthusiastic parents.
At first glance, Joey appears quiet, reticent even. He looks like a neighbor's kid dressed in one of his dad's oversized sweaters. Though once he begins playing the keys, notes flow naturally, familiar standards reeling from his magical fingertips. Joey and the Joey Alexander band performed a half dozen classics to a room full of fresh faces in admiration of this wunderkind.
Feet tapping feverishly under the ivory black Yamaha piano, what makes Joey unique is hard to pin point---perhaps his natural groove or honest spirit that's virtually impossible to miss. His playing is subtle and precious, a manifestation of someone curious and passionate. What's surprising is that Joey learned how to play tunes simply by listening to discarded records his father had laying around the house in Indonesia.
Joey's demeanor is unassuming, shy even at times. He notes jazz greats of the likes of Monk, Coltrane, and Hancock as master influencers. In fact it was a youtube video that caught the eyes of Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center which launched his career on the global jazz circuit. Watching Joey's small hands careen from fast moves to softer, dulcimer ballads sets you in a trance. His pieces catch with giant steps in the making. The irony? If you were to ask his bandmates a good few decades his senior, they'd say that watching Joey play is like witnessing a wise elder emerge while trapped in a kid's suit---a heart that unremittingly knows to follow its bliss.
Joey played a short, sweet one hour set with his formidable jazz trio consisting of piano, drums and bass followed by a second set to follow. Both audiences were packed door-to-door. And I couldn't help but smile throughout. Some energies go without saying. They're simply contagious.