The existence of the 12-year-old Balinese jazz pianist Joey Alexander and the rest of the world’s handful of Mozartian, bell-curve-busting, freakish prodigies makes the rest of us merely “musically inclined” folks wonder, “Why bother?” It is an important question to ask, solemnly and daily. But fortunately, there are plenty of reasons to keep on bothering. Aesthetic talent and achievement – at the end of the day, it seems to me, after years of observing, setting jealousies and defenses as far aside as possible – are pretty much fully decoupled from kinesthetic head-starts.
And aesthetic achievement is the only kind that matters. Granted, those neurotypes who are simply hard-wired for music enjoy more and better opportunities to develop genuine voice and vision, but there are no givens. The road to the Big Easy is littered with the living corpses of blues prodigies wondering why the hell everyone seems to prefer Neil Young.
What makes Alexander so utterly alarming and paradigm-exploding is that his field is jazz, his command of its deep harmonic language is advanced and fluid. He is so prodigious between the ears that you barely even notice the precocious fingers. To date Alexander has released one record: a collection of standards called, a bit too demonstratively, My Favorite Things. If, in your predictive imagination, you are a hearing a proof-of-concept set of tidy jazz études with an emphasis on fleet fingers and “burnin’ jazz,” played rote with some ace hired-gun sidepeople, sorry. I am afraid that the youngster is a far greater threat. The record begins with a stunning, sonorous, mostly solo reading of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” that is…well, heavy and beautiful no matter who’s playing it.
It is so pretty, saccharine-free and delicately impressionistic in its internal harmony, I had a backwards prodigy reaction. Instead of his age adding to my stunned pleasure, it nearly killed it. I found myself wishing that it had been played by a 35-year-old established cat and not by a kid whose age is his story. I wouldn’t want the “great for his age” clause attached to this lovely and complete music – nor would I want the pleasure that I took in it tainted by my layman-level doubts about whether this preteen is operating at the extreme bleeding edge of jazz harmonic invention.
He is not, and I hope he never is. Like a lot of people, I prefer older mainstream jazz to newer mainstream jazz for the same reasons I prefer Brahms to Schoenberg. And like the well-irked Branford Marsalis, I am irked by the insiders’ game that jazz has become, as the science of chord substitution and reharmonization spins further and further away from the irrecoverable tune. My Favorite Things glows with a true sense of song and with a complex euphony that may be a few decades behind the curve, but that’s just another way of calling it a voice straight from jazz’s best decades – no, not Fats Waller or Jelly Roll Morton, but George Russell, Bill Evans, Monk and the other great colorists of the mature jazz of the ’50s and ’60s.
I would hate to see this genuine young lama pressured by his own genre to abandon an exquisite and profound natural voice and enter jazz’s troubled, insular narrative: the story of a continuous and scientific harmonic advancement toward no audience at all. So let’s not do that, shall we?
Joey Alexander is blowing up to the extent that anything blows up in this community of cognoscenti: shows selling out and moving to bigger venues, effusions and pronouncements from the jazz press. Alexander’s January 30 Woodstock show, originally scheduled at the Community Center, has been moved to the Woodstock Playhouse. For Jazzstock – one of many local, regional and national collectives selflessly devoted to the safe handling of the great jazz tradition and the cultivation of its uncertain future – this must be the most heartening expansive development in an era of dwindling returns and downsized expectations. I like to believe that the attention he is receiving has as much to do with the pleasures of a good tune as with his age.
Jazzstock presents Joey Alexander at the Woodstock Playhouse on Saturday, January 30 at 7:30 p.m. Dan Chmielinksi on bass and Kyle Poole on drums round out the trio. Tickets cost $35 and are available by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (845) 802-0029. The Woodstock Playhouse is located at 103 Mill Hill Road in Woodstock.
Jazzstock presents Joey Alexander, Saturday, January 30, 7:30 p.m., $35, Woodstock Playhouse, 103 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock; www.jazzstock.com.