by Michelle Falkenstein
Born in Denpasar, Bali to a family of modest means, Joey Alexander became intrigued by his parents’ classic jazz albums at age six. But the young boy was more than a passive listener, playing along on his miniature electric keyboard aided by his preternaturally gifted ear.
His parents soon realized they were dealing with a special talent and moved the family to Jakarta to bring their son closer to a local jazz scene. At age eight, Alexander showed off his musical abilities for jazz pianist Herbie Hancock when Hancock visited that city as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. By the following year, Alexander topped 42 other musicians from 17 countries to take the Grand Prix at an all-ages jazz competition in Odessa, Ukraine. At age 10, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis invited Alexander to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center after watching him perform in a YouTube video.
“I believe it’s a calling,” says Alexander, now 19, who released his sixth album, Origin, on Mack Avenue Records in May. “It’s God’s gift, and this is the life that I’m living now.”
Jazz fans will have their chance to see him perform in person on Sept. 16, when the Joey Alexander Trio performs two sets in ArtsWestchester’s intimate performance space as part of the 11th annual JazzFest White Plains. The five-day festival, a partnership between ArtsWestchester, the City of White Plains and the White Plains Business Improvement District, features up-and-coming and established talent, both local and national, at venues around the City.
Alexander, whose style can be described as thoughtful, modern and melodic with a smooth flow, takes an innovative approach to his craft. “We have to be true to ourselves and not play something just for the sake of playing what people would like to hear or what would be easily accepted,” he says. His inspiration extends beyond jazz to include rock, gospel, hip-hop and classical music. “I embrace it all,” he says.
Following Alexander’s much-lauded appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a wave of opportunities presented themselves. “Doors started to open for me,” he says. A subsequent concert with Juilliard School students to help fund his continued stay in New York led to a successful application for an O-1B visa, given to non-U.S. artists with “extraordinary ability.” This allowed Alexander and his parents to officially move to New York.
“When I came [to New York], I was excited to be in the city of creativity with the hope of having my music be heard,” he says. He lived in the city until last year when his family moved to Baltimore.
A year after his first album, My Favorite Things, was released by Motéma Music, the recording received two Grammy Award nominations, one for Best Jazz Instrumental Album and another for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for his cover of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. This was followed by another Grammy nomination the next year, for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for Countdown, another Coltrane tune on Alexander’s 2016 album of the same name. In addition to performing jazz standards, he writes his own music, and looks forward to performing some original tunes at his upcoming JazzFest concert.
He hopes to make his mark on the jazz scene by composing fresh new songs that become part of a new jazz repertoire for future generations. “It doesn’t have to be huge and groundbreaking, but something that would have a positive impact on the music,” he says.
Alexander believes the time has come for the next generation of jazz artists to move the art form forward. “That’s what the previous generations did,” he says. “Now it’s our turn.”
For more info and tickets about JazzFest White Plains, visit artsw.org/jazzfest.
A version of this article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.