Geniuses live among us although seldom encountered. In our time, a true genius is nothing short of a mutant, having the power to not just wow a crowd but bring a sizeable impact to their lives. I recently met someone who is considered a genius by many; one who possesses remarkable talent and expertise. This genius, however, comes in a little tiny package.
Having seen Joey Alexander perform on stage at various music festivals, it only came as a shock to me when I met him in person; the lighting on stage must have magnified his stature, as in reality, he is quite a small 10-year-old boy, albeit a giant in talent.
At the well-known South Jakarta recording studio, ICanStudioLive, Joey, his mum and I exchanged hellos as he smiled from ear to ear. I immediately received positive energy exuding from Joey and his mum; both were very outgoing and friendly people. Delving into Joey’s personal story, an atmosphere of awe washed over me.
Joey Alexander was born in 2003 on the island of Bali. Like most Indonesian parents, Joey’s wanted their son to be exposed to music from an early age and to master an instrument. They deemed the piano suitable for him and one day brought home a small keyboard for Joey to practice on. Little did they know, the genius in Joey was about to be unleashed thanks to this simple instrument.
Not long after that Joey enrolled in a music school with his parents’ support for a musical education. While other kids learn to play the basic intervals and chords at music lessons, Joey has excellent aural skills that enable him to reproduce a tune just by ear. Initially, he would listen to a song and be able to play it after two weeks of studying the chords and melodies, already a few steps ahead of children his age. Bypassing the stereotypical method of studying, Joey ended up soaring over his music classes, being able to perform a song just three days after he’d heard it. Additionally, Joey is blessed with soulful and seemingly experienced improvisations and perfect pitch. His parents became aware that Joey has exceptional talent.
Since then, his parents geared him towards a life in music. He began practising on the piano every day for three hours while being home-schooled. He was immediately intrigued by jazz music and would play songs by great legends for hours at a time. There’s not a day where Joey doesn’t touch a piano. “My dad told me he exposed me to a lot of jazz music even when I was in my mother’s womb. Naturally, I love jazz,” Joey explained.
Joey, being the animated boy that he is, was excited in reporting his accomplishments to me. One of his biggest achievements to date that propel his career was winning the Grand Prix award at the International Festival Contest of Jazz Improvisation last year in Odessa, Ukraine, beating out musicians older than himself in all categories. He proudly represented Indonesia at this international event.
Joey was ecstatic when asked to play at an event for UNESCO in 2011 in front of one of his heroes and a big influence on his music, jazz legend Herbie Hancock. He was only eight years old at the time! The piano whiz didn’t stop there; he went on to play at an array of music festivals, including the Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival a few months ago; accumulating experiences while travelling the world. Joey was also interviewed by The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which jump-started his influence in different corners of the Earth.
Joey now plays with his trio, alongside seasoned bass player Barry Likumahuwa and Sandy Winarta on drums. Catching his session at the Java Jazz Festival with this trio arrangement was an absolute delight; Joey sort of sinks into his soul as he plays, shutting his eyes closed and getting lost in the rhythm. It was like watching an out-of-body experience, resulting in a well-balanced marriage between Joey’s fingers, ears and mind. Adding Barry’s slap on the bass and Sandy’s impeccable rhythm was simply an inspired collaboration.
For someone as well-travelled and mobile as Joey, he is certainly modest and dutiful to his country. “I play all over the world but will always come back to Indonesia, my home,” Joey explained.
Now, Joey considers himself an autodidact, learning new tunes and improvisational skills by listening to a large selection of music, whilst not forgetting to advance his technical skills by doing fingering practices. He subjects himself to recordings by Thelonius Monk, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, among other names he cited as his influences.
His father, the musical one in the family until Joey came along, is perhaps Joey’s biggest mentor and motivator. Joey’s parents instil a commendable work ethic in him; to work hard and be humble. “None of it will mean anything if I wasn’t humble,” said the young musician who is wise beyond his years.
Joey and his family are preparing for a big trip ahead of the Big Apple, New York City. Joey has been invited to play with veteran jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis and he couldn’t be more thrilled. They will play at the massive and prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center event, where Wynton, an advocate for jazz music to young audiences, serves as Artistic Director. Joey’s YouTube videos were the common denominator in the accomplishment of this upcoming collaboration. “I’m very honoured and thankful to have been invited to a jazz event of this scale,” said Joey. As this wasn’t a traditional Indonesian showcase, like ones featuring gamelan or angklung, Joey is extremely pleased by this invitation, for he feels a groundbreaking milestone was achieved; through him, Indonesia will be appreciated in an international art form. After the Lincoln Center, Joey will make his way to Princeton University where he will perform to inspire the university’s students.
Joey has now started to expand his wings and delve into composing songs, which will be featured on his upcoming album. The excitement for his debut album is brewing and it will be completed after his US trip.
This wunderkind regards himself as an old soul, saying, “Some people told me that if they were listening to my recording without looking at my play, they swore I was an old and seasoned pianist. When in truth, I still play games at home in my spare time, you know, like kids do.”
When asked what he would do if he were to be filthy rich in the future, Joey jokingly replied, “I don’t think I will make or need that kind of money. I mean, I am a jazz musician, after all.”
He goes one saying, “I just want to play music, that’s what matters most to me; I play in gratefulness to God and I’m thankful for those who support my passion.” Whether Indonesia is ready or not for the piano prodigy, Joey Alexander is moving ever forward, full speed ahead.
The child prodigy was nothing but a joy to be around. I was honoured to have a personal viewing as he played Burt Bucharach’s Alfie, The Beatles’ Yesterday and my personal favourite, Blackbird; then I was euphoric.
All the best to you, Joey!