Interview: Joey Alexander

January 11, 2017

“It’s not just technique or how fast you can play, because in order to play this music, you really have to have a kind of maturity and wisdom,” pianist and composer Joey Alexander says, seated beside a 9-foot Hamburg Steinway concert grand in New York City. It's good advice for sure, but even more impressive when you consider this: Joey Alexander is 13 years-old, with the musical and emotional gravitas of an old master. One listen and you believe the hype. This kid is for real.

Since arriving in the United States from Bali, Indonesia, Alexander has soared, with multiple Grammy nominations (including one just announced for his latest release Countdown), prime-time television appearances, and a touring schedule that would be challenging for veterans three times his age.

But what’s most important to the young musician isn’t the accolades or awards he continues to garner. “I understand that people still doubt me as a musician because I’m too young,” he says. “They can say whatever they think, and I respect that. But my hope is for people to focus more on my music.”

Just days before he debuted his new album in London and Paris, Alexander talked with Keyboard about his remarkable approach to both music and life.

Let’s go back to your beginnings in Bali, Indonesia. What do you remember about growing-up a world away from New York City, where you live now?

Well, I loved the beach. I also heard all kinds of music there; traditional music, and some jazz too. I went to hear jazz and I jammed with the local musicians. It was a different vibe, but I loved it during that time.

You’ve spoken in the past about music being a big part of your upbringing, with it percolating through your house by way of classic records that your father played. What kinds of things were you listening when you first got into jazz?

I remember my dad played me Louis Armstrong. He was one of the early jazz musicians that I heard. Also during that time, I listened to Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and even singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I also listened to the great piano player Harry Connick Jr. I listened to his early records, and I loved his trio, too, with Ben Wolfe and Shannon Powell. Then I listened to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, and I can’t forget Mr. Wayne Shorter, whose music I love very much.

Your dad is a musician too?

He plays guitar and is also self-taught. And he also plays a bit of piano.

So the records that he played for you were some of his favorites that he had collected over the years?

Yeah. He didn’t really force me, but he would have me listen to his favorite ones, like Louis and Monk, who at that time I didn’t really understand. [Laughs.]

Do you remember what music of Monk’s you liked when you were growing-up?

One of the first compositions of his that I heard was “Blue Monk.” I would listen to it and play along with it. I also played his composition entitled “Well, You Needn’t.” I was just picking up the melody. This was during the time I was learning how to play the piano.

Monk has such a childlike sense humor in his music. Even adults can hear the fun in his playing.

He is such a playful player. I love his harmonic and rhythmic approach. His rhythms really got me into playing this music and the piano, too. I also love listening to Herbie [Hancock], Bill Evans, and lately, Ahmad Jamal.

By six years old, you taught yourself how to play piano on an electric keyboard that your father bought you. What kind of pieces did you play on it?

Jazz, of course. We also listened to gospel music, so I would play some gospel songs, too. I went to church, and when we were in Bali, my Dad also played guitar in church and I would watch him play. When I played that keyboard, I just felt the keys and fell in love with it. Even if it wasn’t a grand piano, it got me interested in piano, the more I played it and learned. When I was seven, my parents got me an upright piano. It was big enough at that time for me! What I love about the piano is the range of keys, and the sound. You can go anywhere on it. You can play melody and rhythm at the same time. That, for me, is what’s special about the instrument.

So the spirit was in you to make music, with whatever instrument was available.

Yeah. I believe it’s God’s gift to play this music. It believe it’s a calling for me.

There are a lot of young players that can play fast and impress with their technique, but I think one of the reasons you stand out to so many people is because of the depth of your musical conception. When your name comes up, someone will invariably say “He plays like an old master.” Meaning, you are tapping into something that goes beyond just the notes. That there’s a humanity in the way you approach the piano.

I agree with what you are saying. It’s that feeling, and I believe it’s coming from God. Of course, I also got encouraged from other musicians like Mr. Wynton Marsalis and Wayne Shorter. But for me, it’s not how old you are, because I want to say that this music is for all ages.

I was knocked out by your playing on tough, fast tunes like “Giant Steps,” but what really convinced me was the way you play ballads like “Smile” from your new album Countdown. To be able to pull at people’s heartstrings like that means you are tapping into something more than just “Check out my chord voicings!” It’s beyond just what you can learn theoretically. It’s something you have to feel.

[Laughs.] Yeah. And before I arrange a song, I always try to feel the song first. When I play a song, it’s not just a melody. There’s a story behind it. I always try to understand the lyrics, too, so I know what the song means and what it’s about. I want to give that joy, too. That’s really important for me.

I can hear the influence of younger, adventurous jazz musicians like Brad Mehldau in your playing. But what I really hear is the echo of elders like Tommy Flanagan and Ahmad Jamal: masters with unwavering time and an elegant touch. Who did you listen to that taught you how to achieve a graceful touch on the instrument?

Oh yeah. Bill Evans. And of course, Herbie, and other people who as you said, it’s not just about [playing] theoretically. It’s also about feeling and depth. For me, this music is also spiritual. So you have to play with spirit and bring that kind of energy to the music.

Who are some other piano players whose touch and sound at the piano also affected you?

[Laughs.] There are a lot. You look at Thelonious Monk when he plays a ballad… Not a lot of people can play a ballad like him with such power. When I first heard him play a ballad, I thought, “Is this really a ballad?” Because he makes it alive. I think that’s the most important thing. Just because you are playing a ballad doesn’t mean you always have to make it sad.

You also have a very strong command of the jazz language. Some players have a “thing” they do; they can play runs like Chick [Corea], or fourth voicings like McCoy [Tyner]. But in the course of 30 seconds, I’ve heard you play myriad jazz textures, from stride almost to Bach-like counterpoint between your hands. You have a vocabulary that stretches across the history of this music.

Yeah, well, you’ve got to be open in this music. [Laughs.] It’s just like when I collaborated with Kelsea Ballerini [on the newly released single “My Favorite Things”]. I’m very grateful to have worked and performed with her. And doing that, I also learned that you have to be open to new ideas.

When you started getting serious about pursuing a career in jazz, did you have a daily practice routine that you followed?

Yeah. My dad and I had materials that I practiced. I don’t practice eight hours a day. I practice two or three hours a day. I had some musicians [back home] that taught me how to play the music. But mostly, I did jam sessions and I had some teachers that taught me basic chords. But it’s not just that. When I practice, especially now, I always try to work on how to be free. How I can have the freedom so that every time I perform, I have that feeling onstage, and I’m able to have a conversation with my friends.

One of your biggest supporters and champions has been trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Can you talk about what his support has meant to you, and what you have learned from him?

I’m so thankful to have him in my life. He was the one that believed in me and brought my family and I to the U.S. I don’t really get music “lessons” from him, but I think the most important thing is that he always encourages me to keep playing this music. Also just playing with him is like school for me, and he encourages me to do my own thing. Through that, I learn how to be myself and to have my own sound. That’s what I’m trying to get every time I practice: How to have my own voice.

Your 2015 album My Favorite Things introduced you to the music world in a big way. One of the standout tracks on that record was your version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” where you seemed to find your own way through the song, having fun and putting your own personality on it.

Yeah, you know, you have to make it fun! It took me time, but actually when we were in the studio, I think we only did two takes.

How do you approach playing songs that many musicians find difficult?

Well, I found playing “Giant Steps” and “Countdown” very challenging. But I think I always try to focus on the feeling of the song, as well as the harmonies. [He demonstrates his method by playing an excerpt from John Coltrane’s song “Giant Steps.”]

I try to just be “one” with the song and explore it. And of course, you’ve got to feel that groove too. Every time I play with my band, I try to feel that and have an interaction. For sure I know the risks, because songs like these are hard to play because of the amount of patience you need. Especially “Countdown,” because it’s not just the harmonies: I find the space of it really difficult. [He demonstrates by playing an excerpt from John Coltrane’s song “Countdown.”]

There’s real harmonic depth to your chording. Every time you go through that chord sequence, it’s different. You’re not just “making the changes,” you’re telling a story with really lush chord voicings. This isn’t jazz piano for beginners!

Actually, sometimes when I do clinics with my friends and people ask me, “How do you solo on ‘Giant Steps, ’” I tell them, “You’ve got to follow the flow and the song.” Don’t make it too hard on yourself, otherwise you won’t enjoy the song. And if you don’t enjoy the song, you won’t feel it.

But you are often playing really rich, dense chord voicings that cover a wide range of jazz piano styles…

Well, I often play simple chords… [He demonstrates by playing a series of chord progressions].

It doesn’t take that much to really learn it. Of course, I’m still learning how to express myself using harmony.

How do you expand your chord voicing vocabulary? If you hear someone play a chord you like, do you say, “Can you show me that voicing?”

Well, I never ask them. I’m a shy person. But yeah, if I hear something I like, I’ll think, “He’s got his own sound.” Like when I hear people like Ahmad Jamal and the dynamics that he plays; even just one chord means something. He’s not just playing random chords.

Another memorable song from your first album was your version of the classic tune “Over the Rainbow.” What kinds of things do you think about when you are playing ballads?

Well, I’ve loved playing ballads since I was seven. The [need for] patience really helps me. And when I practiced with my father, we would just practice mostly ballads. The fast songs would come later. Because playing ballads is so hard. My father helped me to be patient in my emotions in how I played. Playing fast is just normal. I’m not saying it’s easy, but playing ballads takes patience. You need to feel that. It’s like playing the blues. How do you do that? It’s in the groove. [Joey demonstrates by playing a bluesy chord progression.]

It’s about taking your time.

Taking your time, yeah. And it’s about feeling. It’s the same thing with gospel tunes too. I learned how to be free and express myself by playing ballads and by using space.

On your version of “Over the Rainbow,” you don’t simply play the melody in your right hand and chords in your left hand. You’re really exploring the melody in different ways, having a dialogue between your hands.

I always try to be connected and feel the beauty of the song. [He demonstrates by playing part of “Over the Rainbow.”] It’s the same thing with [the Charlie Chaplin song] “Smile.” When I play the melody, I always try to do it my own way and give my own interpretation of the song. That’s really it.

Your first album My Favorite Things was nominated for two Grammy awards when you were only twelve years old. What did all of that early success teach you?

Well, again I’m so thankful to God to have opportunities and to be able to prove myself as a musician and show people what I can do. Just have these opportunities—to play at the Newport Jazz Festival twice, being at the Grammys, performing at the White House with Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding, and to play with amazing musicians like the great Jeff “Tain” Watts, Willie Jones III, and Larry Grenadier is really a blessing for me.

You’re back with a truly impressive set of music on your new album Countdown. What was the most important thing for you about recording the follow-up to your last album?

I explore more, musically. And I have my own compositions and, of course, I have amazing musicians like Chris Potter on soprano saxophone on Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” which is one of my favorite songs to play. I also have people that were on my first album, like Ulysses Owens, Jr. and this young, very talented bass player that tours with me named Dan Chmielinski.

The new album starts with your original composition “City Lights.” This one has a hypnotizing bass ostinato and pedal point figure. How did this song come about?

Mostly it came from the rhythm. It was not from that intro groove; when I was practicing, suddenly this Latin groove came on. [He demonstrates the opening of “City Lights.”]

You have a really strong and active left hand. Are there piano players whose left hand work you admired? Because there are a lot of piano players with weak left hands like claws!

[Laughs.] Yeah, I always try to have that groove. Ahmad Jamal is one of my favorites; the way he plays a rhythmic and very powerful left hand. That touch—he’s not playing just loud. It’s the dynamics he uses that grounds everything. I like to explore that.

I hear a lot of Ahmad Jamal in your playing. I also hear a lot of Ahmad Jamal in what you don’t play. He lets the space have its own place.

I always try to be myself, but I would say he’s one of my favorites. You have to take time and let the groove keep going. That’s the thing I always try to feel in my band.

Your song “Sunday Waltz” combines gospel, blues and even some stride. Talk about this one. It reminded me of some of [famed Peanuts/Charlie Brown composer] Vince Guaraldi’s heartfelt compositions. There’s a kindness to this one.

Well, mostly it came from gospel and the church, and the chords that I love. You know, I still listen to Mahalia Jackson and another great singer, Aretha Franklin, too.

She’s a great piano player too!

Yeah. She can really play. I love gospel music. It’s a spiritual thing for me.

The chords and inversions on this song have a wonderful quality to them.

It’s like a gospel feel. [He demonstrates by playing some of “Sunday Waltz.”]

Your version of the song “Countdown” would make most pianists—this one included—consider changing professions! I love your unaccompanied solo break here, too. It takes a lot of guts to have the band drop out and have everything be on you.

Actually, I did that, too, on “Giant Steps.” [Laughs.] On this one, I tried to explore myself without a band. I wasn’t trying to make it harder: I just like to try things out. I always try to play different things, which isn’t always that easy.

On your new album, your take on “Smile” is pretty astounding. You seem to have a conversation with yourself on the melody. The way you switch off between hands, the harmonies, and the classical, almost fugue-like textures—It’s like you’re reviewing the history of jazz in the first minute and a half!

It took me time to get used to that song. Actually, one of the first musicians that I heard play this song was Michael Jackson. I always loved the song, but I never thought I would record it. I always try to play ballads, and suddenly I came across this one and my dad said, “Why don’t you try it and see if you like it?” I think that song is so connected. It’s called “Smile”: It’s happy and there are a lot of emotions, too. That’s what made me interested in covering it. It’s very simple. There’s simplicity, but it has other elements, too. It’s got heart and soul. And that joy that we as jazz musicians always try to give to people.

When you’re coming up with an arrangement for a song like this, do you write it out? Or is it mostly by ear?

Mostly by ear. My friend will write it for me. I can write, but I don’t think I’m very good at it.

You play solo as if you have a rhythm section behind you. Did you practice with a metronome behind you when you were starting out?

Not really. [Laughs.] I tried to, but it didn’t really work. But I always try to have that kind of energy every time I play. The piano is so special because it’s like an orchestra. It can be the drums, it can be the bass, and it can play melody, harmony and rhythm at the same time. It’s very special. So it’s a process.

I always try to play solo as if it’s a whole band playing together. It’s not easy, because when you’re playing with a band, you have support. But when you’re playing solo, you have to be everywhere!

Another song you cover on the new album is Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” Why did you decide to record that one?

Oh yeah. It’s very beautiful. Besides [Strayhorn’s] “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge” is one of my favorite songs to play, especially because you start with this mysterious chord on the first “A” [section]. [He starts playing some of “Chelsea Bridge.”]

Then it goes to the conclusion. It kind of turns into a happy feeling. And on the “B” [section], it’s like it’s wandering. I always love those kinds of songs. You know the way to go, but it’s wandering around.

Let’s talk about your take on the Herbie Hancock tune “Maiden Voyage.” How do you approach playing over songs like this, where the harmony does not change that often?

You’ve got to be really creative. I always try to get the feeling of the original song. And what really stuck for me and made me want to play the song was the groove. [He starts playing some of “Maiden Voyage”].

I didn’t know what to do with the song, because you can’t really change the chords that much. But the more I explored it, I suddenly got some chords that are still connected to the feeling of the song. So when I improvise, I always try to stay connected to the song, but also be free at the same time.

You’re asking yourself, “What would be true to the song and at the same time be true to myself?”

Yeah. And that’s important. You want to do your own thing, but keep the simplicity, too. You cannot play too much.

Let’s return to your collaboration with Grammy-nominated country artist Kelsea Ballerini on the new version of “My Favorite Things.” Do you like working with people outside of the jazz world to introduce them to this music?

Yeah. I think it’s really interesting just to bring jazz to a new audience. It’s not like we’re trying to cross over into country. It’s still jazz, and I’m still doing my own thing. And just to play this song that the great John Coltrane played: “My Favorite Things” is not a jazz song. It was a song from The Sound of Music. So doing this song with her shows all the possibilities that are open. I would love to collaborate with other artists like her that are not in jazz.

We’re talking at Steinway Hall in New York City. What do you like about Steinway pianos?

I love how they sound and the touch. They have that “round” sound, especially on this Model “D” piano, which I always play. The sound is so clean and crystal clear.

Do you ever think about playing electric keyboards like the Fender Rhodes?

I love the sound of the Rhodes. I would love to try it with a trio. Maybe next year!

JASON OLAINE THE PRODUCER SPEAKS

“Joey’s such a remarkable human being,” says Countdown producer Jason Olaine, who is also Director of Programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.

“Wynton [Marsalis] sent me a text one day, prior to our 2011 gala, and said, ‘Have you heard of this kid Joey Alexander?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he replied, ‘Can you check him out?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So I Googled Joey, and I found a bunch of videos on YouTube of him playing things like [Chick Corea’s] ‘Spain.’ I thought, ‘Wow. Okay. There’s a young kid who can play like Chick, and he’s got some of his own stuff too,’ but I couldn’t really tell if there was anything unique about him.

”So I texted Wynton back and said, ‘Yeah, he can play, but I’m not sure what else is there.’ And Wynton replied, ‘Okay, just sign him and get him on the gala.’ Then I thought, ‘Now I have to track someone down in Indonesia who’s a minor, so I have to organize his parents’ travel and their visas, too.’ Luckily, I found a Facebook page and sent a note on behalf of Wynton Marsalis, inviting Joey to perform at our gala. Three hours later, his dad, Denny, wrote back saying, ‘We’d be honored. He’s a hero of ours.’ That began this whole journey of him coming to the U.S. and what’s happened since. And I’ve found him to be just the most open, thoughtful and caring kid.”

Olaine, who also produced Alexander’s Grammy-nominated 2015 release My Favorite Things, worked intimately with the pianist and his family on crafting its follow-up. “Joey, his mom, his dad and I all got together numerous times before recording the new album to talk about how we could express what he wanted to express,” Olaine says, “And how we could also show different sides of his continued musical evolution. Joey has evolved tremendously as both a trio and solo player in the last year, but I don’t think any of us were really aware of how much he had developed in terms of how he comps and interacts with a horn player. Joey, to me, was one of the few people that could keep up with someone like [saxophonist] Chris Potter. He has that ‘fast twitch’ musical muscle. You can be a cynic, until you see Joey live. And when you actually play with him, it becomes clear. He’s the real deal.”

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