A funny thing happened to Joey Alexander over the past five years, a whirlwind period during which he became the most brilliantly precocious talent in jazz history—that is, a renowned festival and concert-hall headliner; the youngest musician ever nominated for a Grammy Award in a jazz category; and a media favorite who’s earned a profile on 60 Minutes, a front-page profile in the New York Times and other premier coverage.
As heard on WARNA, his new major-label Verve Records debut, he’s simply become one of the most expressive and thrilling pianist-composers currently at work in jazz. Alexander’s precocity can still stun concertgoers, but his music, including original work and personalized interpretations of great songs, has now taken its rightful place in the spotlight.
Translating as “color” from Alexander’s native language of Bahasa, WARNA follows four Motéma Music albums that garnered the pianist three Grammy nominations and such honors as historic critics’ and readers’ poll victories in DownBeat and JazzTimes. But whereas those recordings were documents of an extraordinary young musician in development, WARNA is primarily a collection of reflective, moving new music by an experienced, confident bandleader.
Now far beyond the “jazz prodigy” hoopla, Alexander channels what he sees, hears and feels throughout his life and travels into his astonishing melodic gift and natural aptitude for spontaneous collaboration. Joining Alexander on this journey is a cast of musicians who, like the leader, represent the very best of their jazz generations. A core piano trio comprises bassist Larry Grenadier—who recently released a daring solo-bass exploration for ECM, and whose relationship with Alexander reaches back to the pianist’s debut, 2015’s My Favorite Things—and Kendrick Scott, a tremendously dynamic drummer who records as a bandleader himself for the venerated Blue Note label. On select tracks, the proceedings are lifted higher still by either Luisito Quintero, a Venezuelan-born percussion master who has been tapped by such giants as Tito Puente, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette and Eddie Palmieri; and flautist Anne Drummond, a musician, producer and educator whose wide command of genres is staggering.
WARNA unfolds like entries in a road journal. The title track, “Mosaic (of Beauty)” and “Our Story” are testament to the shared joys of music-making. Alexander got the inspiration for “Lonely Streets,” a tribute to America’s forgotten corners and quiet small towns, while traveling from a gig in upstate New York to his home in Manhattan. The tunes “Downtime” and “We Here” were written to honor those special moments that occur off the concert stage, exploring new cities or just hanging out with family and friends.
Joey highlights his deeply felt faith with a couple of spiritually inspired tracks. “Tis Our Prayer” is rooted in the pre-performance ritual that Alexander partakes in with his bandmates, a prayer offering thanks for the opportunity to share music with the audience. “The Light,” Alexander explains, was forged to bring “blessings of hope, courage and joy to people who listen,” especially those in need of healing.
Though Alexander’s original music ranges far and wide stylistically, seamlessly incorporating influences from gospel, Latin music and more, through lines do emerge: a heaven-sent sense of song and form, and a keen ability to generate escalating excitement over the course of a performance. Alexander’s hero and early champion Herbie Hancock is evoked, as are the singable lines of the likes of Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. He evinces a similar knack for memorable, enticing tunefulness on a pair of freeform improvisations, “Affirmation I” and “Affirmation III.” Two additional tracks, a cover of Sting’s 1988 hit “Fragile” and Joe Henderson’s classic standard “Inner Urge,” showcase both Alexander’s dynamism as an interpreter and his veneration of masters across genre. As the New Yorker once observed, “He may be young, but he certainly respects his elders.”
In his sweet and understated way, Alexander says of his new album: “I wanted to share with people my original work based on my experiences on the road and onstage playing with different musicians, and the musical conversations.” That might sound like the approach of any number of accomplished improvisers and composers, but of course no other musician has experienced a life in jazz like Alexander’s.
He arrived in New York as a lightning bolt in the spring of 2014, performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual fundraising gala. At the helm of a packed-out theater containing some of Manhattan’s most elite arts benefactors, Alexander dropped jaws with a remarkably lyrical rendition of “’Round Midnight.” A standing ovation ensued, and Alexander hasn’t slowed down since. The following spring, the New York Times wrote in an enthusiastic profile that “For a jazz pianist, the mastery entails a staggering breadth of knowledge about harmony, rhythm and orchestration, all converging in an eloquent synthesis. Joey Alexander has a handle on a good deal of that.” From there, he went on to receive three Grammy nominations, with two of Alexander’s four previous albums topping the Billboard Jazz Albums chart.
His live performances have been equally celebrated. At the 58th Grammy Awards, in February of 2016, he played during both the pre-telecast and the primetime TV event. That same year, Alexander also performed with Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding for the Obamas at the White House, as part of a nationally televised International Jazz Day special. In 2018, Alexander headlined Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater with a 20-piece string section orchestrated and conducted by Grammy nominee Richard DeRosa. On October 18, 2019, he made his triumphant Carnegie Hall debut to a sold-out Zankel Hall crowd.
Early on in Alexander’s ascent, the trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center leader Wynton Marsalis said that “there has never been anyone … who could play like that at his age.” Marsalis, who essentially “discovered” Alexander via his YouTube videos and invited him to New York, was spot-on in his assessment. But today, in light of WARNA, one could extend their judgment to say that Joey Alexander continues to perform at the highest level.