12-year-old Indonesian Pianist Wows Jazz World

 12-year-old Indonesian Pianist Wows Jazz World

Heidi Chang
Listen to Joey Alexander play the piano, and you can hear the future of Jazz.  People who hear him play say they are moved by his virtuosity, and his mastery of the piano.  He’s 12.But the jazz greats who work with him and listen to him are the first to dismiss his age.  Jason Olaine, who produced Joey’s debut album, My Favorite Things, advises; «Just close your eyes, and listen to Joey.”

Those who listen are impressed, so much so that the young pianist has garnered two Grammy nominations, for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” and “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.”  He is one of the youngest musicians to receive that honor.

From Bali to New York

Josiah Alexander Sila was born in Bali, Indonesia, where his parents ran a travel business, and his father played a little piano and guitar. «I saw him play and then he make me like, I want to play, I want to try this instrument,» Joey explained.

He learned to play jazz by ear when he was six, by listening to musicians in his father’s record collection. Joey lists the names. «Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, Coltrane and Bill Evans.  I heard all these amazing musicians.»

The Sila’s moved to Jakarta, so Joey could play with some of Indonesia’s best jazz artists. When he was 10, he was invited to New York City, to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center. JALC Director of Programming, record producer Jason Olaine, remembers the reaction of musicians who were there for a rehearsal when Joey performed a Thelonius Monk tune.

«Joey plays a version of «Round Midnight,» and everybody’s jaws dropped, like looking at Joey and looking at each other… and they’re laughing, like ‘This can’t possibly be what we’re hearing.’  He took another take afterwards, it was a completely different arrangement…  You kind of shrug your shoulders, look at each other, scratch your head, and just go ‘okay, allright, I’ve never seen this before.'»

One of the musicians who plays on Joey’s debut album had a similar reaction. Drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., who is 32, says despite their two-decade age difference, he and Joey connected musically from the start.

He recalls watching the young pianist play «Giant Steps,» which could win him a Grammy in February for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. «Every time we did «Giant Steps,» Joey always loved to do an intro, without the band … And one of the second or third intros, he went to this whole other place. And I watched him, I watched him close his eyes, and I watched his head kinda just bobbin’ to the side, he has this thing that he does when he’s really going somewhere… and I was like ‘This is freakin’ amazing,'» he said with a big laugh. «Watching this little kid, he’s going on all these harmonic adventures, and melodic adventures, and doing some really hip stuff, and he’s just gone, he’s just completely in this next stratosphere, I’m like, that is a gift, man, and when I open my eyes and look at him, that’s what I saw, man, this kid is literally from another planet, and it’s so beautiful to watch.»

Just a normal kid

When he’s not performing, the young pianist is home-schooled.  He likes pop music – Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and the Beatles. «I’m still me as a kid,» he insisted. «Playing toys. I play sports, like I play a little bit of tennis, swimming… like a normal kid, I watch movies.»

Joey Alexander’s parents gave up their travel business and eventually moved the family to New Jersey so Joey could pursue music. He says he is grateful for all of the support and encouragement he’s received along the way. And he is thrilled to be a part of the New York City jazz scene, where so many of his idols first made those recordings he grew up hearing. … and where he can live his dream–playing jazz for people.

«I hope that they will feel the joy because this music is so joyful and it touches people’s hearts.  And I always hope people will be joyful in their lives and to have hope.»