REVIEW: Joey Alexander Trio at the Dakota

If you want to simply describe 14-year-old Joey Alexander as a remarkable child prodigy who happens to play jazz, well you needn’t. He’s on a much higher plane.

The pianist, composer and bandleader from Indonesia made his Dakota Jazz Club debut with his trio on Sunday night, October 15. It was his first performance at the club, but not his first visit to the Twin Cities.

Two years ago, at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Alexander familiarized the local jazz community with his gift and his trio, which includes bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis discovered Joey via YouTube, and the rest, as they say, is history. Alexander now considers Marsalis his mentor and hero.

His new album, Joey.Monk.Live!, is out now exclusively on iTunes and Apple Music. It’s Alexander’s third album overall. Marking this special occasion, Alexander and his crew took the audience on a youthful yet sophisticated spin that shined a spotlight on the next generation of jazz musicians. The album turned what could be described as a cross-cultural experience into an extraordinarily in-the-moment excursion.

Joey Alexander Photo by Andrea Canter

Alexander didn’t just play the beautiful black Steinway piano; he flew it like a glider.

The band’s set consisted of seven songs that lasted about an hour in front of a laser-focused and thoroughly enthralled audience. Perhaps the most enthusiastic were his proud parents standing in the wings and the piano tuner who was on hand listening from afar.

Alexander played a few keys of the piano opening solo before his band joined in for a grand rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.” Like seasoned pros, they took their time, started out slow as if in neutral drive, and then shifted into full swing mode.

The soloing revealed up front Dan’s fat and round bass sound and the crackle-pop of Owens on drums. “This was the first song by Monk that I listened to,” Alexander told the crowd before introducing two original compositions, “Space” and “Peace.” They also creditably tackled John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.”

At times, Alexander leaned into the keys and stood up from his seat. There were pauses and breaks, but he always seemed to be very much in touch with his band, giving them a nod or a big smile. They played with all the intensity of a second set, last night gig.

It’s true that the trio had an undeniable chemistry, as they ought to — they’ve been playing with each other for a relatively long time now. What was also unmistakably clear was that Alexander can write. His songs were beautifully elegant, yet not too polished. His soloing was deeply sincere, and the trio had his back.

Nowhere was this more abundantly clear than during the aptly titled song “14,” which featured some wild and danceable Latin rhythms courtesy of Owens. The freshly composed tune allowed Alexander to glide through the composition with the ease and confidence, yet seriousness, of a golden-era veteran upholding the mainstream jazz piano tradition.

His interpretations of standards aren’t mere imitations; they are delivered in new ways that show he can alternate freely between melody and improvisation, and the intricacies of his playing don’t make one think just of his technical virtuosity.

And just like that, they were at the end, the encore, “Draw Me Near,” another lovely composition by Alexander that he said was very personal and spiritual, a hymn. And as if he were wrapping a cozy blanket around the music, he stretched out completely and with his lightness of touch coaxed out every last drop of sheer lush warmth that piano had.

 

Robin James welcomes readers’ responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.