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Music

Indonesian jazz pianist teen on playing with Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis, and not being a prodigy

Joey Alexander played the Lincoln Centre aged 10, is the youngest ever to play the Newport Jazz Festival, has been nominated for two Grammys and played the White House, but, now aged 14, he says he is just like any other musician

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 7:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 7:45pm

Joey Alexander is sitting in the Conrad Hong Kong hotel’s Lobby Lounge wearing thick-framed glasses and an expression that swings between cheeky and bored. The 14-year-old jazz pianist is bravely fighting off a cold and with only two days in Hong Kong to perform at the Asia Society, he’s been coerced into coming down from his room to give an interview in the coffee shop.

“I wouldn’t call myself a prodigy. If I was eight or nine, maybe, but I think I’ve passed that. I think I’m like any musician,” Joey says.

Now a teenager, he has arguably graduated from the “child genius” zone, but there’s no doubt that he was a child prodigy. Born in Bali, his amateur musician father exposed him to a wide variety of classical music from a very young age, and he started playing the piano at six. Indeed, his talent may have been sparked even before that as his mother played the jazz greats to him when he was in her womb.

“My dad played all kinds of music – jazz, gospel, pop, some classical. I would just listen to the music. That’s how I learned,” he says.

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At the age of six he was given an electronic keyboard. He says he thought it was a toy, discovered the keys and then just “felt” the sound.

“I was playing by ear, it was a gift for me. I believe [my talent] is a gift from God that I should share with people and give them joy. That’s really why I love playing this music,” he says.

Joey and his family are devout Christians and several times he refers to his gift as coming from God.

His father nurtured his son’s natural talent for swing and improvisation, taking him to jam sessions with veteran musicians in jazz clubs in Bali and Jakarta. His talent was obvious and people started to take note. At the age of eight, Unesco invited him to play piano for Herbie Hancock when the American musician played the Jakarta Jazz Festival. The young Joey had just moved to Jakarta with his family, and when Hancock asked what he was going to perform he told him he’d play one of the piano great’s favourite songs.

“I played Watermelon Man and he was surprised because his songs are pretty difficult to play. [Hancock] always smiles when he talks, and he said, ‘Yeah, keep playing’. It was a good experience for me. He encouraged me to be the best,” Joey says.

The following year Joey won the inaugural “Master-Jam” jazz festival, an all-ages competition in Ukraine that drew 200 competitors from 17 countries. By the time he was 10, Joey was playing at jazz festivals in Jakarta and Copenhagen. Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at the Lincoln Centre, came across one of his YouTube videos and invited him to play at the centre’s gala that year. Marsalis has since become a mentor.

It’s been something of a roller coaster since. He played for former US president Obama at the White House, became one of the youngest Grammy nominees in history, has appeared on US television news magazine 60 Minutes, and in April he played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The youngest musician to ever take the stage, he received a standing ovation. So what’s it like to always be the youngest person at a jazz festival, in a jazz club?

“I don’t feel that way. It’s not about age, it’s about coming together and making music. When we play we are learning from each other,” Joey says.

Along the way he has released two albums. My Favourite Things (2015) was the first and earned him a Grammy Award nomination for best jazz instrumental album. His second, Countdown (2016), named after the John Coltrane track, includes three original compositions. Composing is something that comes naturally to Joey. He says that when he’s practising or playing, new melodic or rhythmic ideas come to him and before long he’s composing a song.

“It’s actually easier to write my own songs than try to interpret someone else’s song, because then I have to try to figure out what the song is about and find a way to make it my own,” he says.

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The two musicians who accompanied him for his two Asia Society gigs in November – Dan Chmielinski (bass) and Ulysses Owens Jnr (drums) both featured on Countdown.

“They are adults. I don’t always play with the same group, but Dan and Ulysses have played with me for years,” Joey says, meaning since 2014, when the family moved from Jakarta to New York.

His parents sold the family business in the Indonesian capital and relocated to the US to give the rising star plenty of opportunities to develop his talent.

Success wasn’t immediate – first he had to learn English and then convince promoters that an 11-year-old could sufficiently captivate a discerning jazz audience.

A 2015 gig at Newport Jazz Festival was a turning point, when he wowed audiences with his sense of swing. The Big Apple is now well and truly home.

“New York is a great place to be, with all kinds of people from around the world coming together. I love the energy. I like walking in the parks in New York – people bring their instruments and play music in the park. They also play in Washington Square,” Joey says.

Joey is home schooled by his parents. “They help me do my homework. It’s very flexible, I can do it any time I want.”

His favourite subject is history and he enjoys learning about native Americans as well as the history of music and jazz. He also spends two to three hours a day practising music.

“I don’t have a trainer. My dad is my teacher, but first of all it comes from God,” he says.

He’s done a huge amount of touring over the last year, including London and Paris, and his website lists shows booked all the way through to May next year, across the US and including Thailand.

Although he acknowledges he has a natural gift, he insists that he works hard at it.

“It’s a learning process. You don’t go straight to just being good; you’ve got to work at it. And always enjoy yourself, that’s the most important thing,” Joey says.

With its complicated structures, jazz tends to be seen as too sophisticated a genre for children and teens, but Joey says he’s enjoying introducing it to a younger crowd.

“I always try to my best to share this music with people my age. Some of them, actually all of them, are positive. They really enjoy music that is not really popular,” he says.

Listening to Joey talk about the challenges of being a bandleader – “It’s not easy. You have to communicate your ideas with your friends. Sometimes my ideas don’t make sense to me and it’s my responsibility to work it out” – it’s easy to forget that he is only 14 years old, but he also does typical teen things.

“I watch movies, play video games and spend time with my action figures,” he says.

But it’s when he talks about the music that his face really lights up, and he says he loves the sense of freedom that comes with jazz.

“I enjoy the swing. It comes with this possibility, you get the freedom and you have to learn to use it wisely. Blues and swing are the foundation, but of course it’s improvised music at the foundation,” Joey says.

His manager is circling, eager that Joey rests up before the evening gigs. “I’ve got to go, I hope you got everything you need,” he says, sounding a little precocious, but every ounce the professional.