Jazz child prodigy Joey Alexander takes Aspen
If You Go…
Who: Joey Alexander
Where: JAS Café at the Cooking School of Aspen
When: Saturday, Aug. 6 & Sunday, Aug 7, 6 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: Early shows/$100 (dinner included); late shows/$45
For an average 13-year-old boy, this summer might be memorable for, say, going to sleepaway camp or catching Pokemon. Joey Alexander is not an average 13-year-old.
The jazz pianist from Bali exploded onto the world stage last year and released his debut album, “My Favorite Things,” which was nominated for two Grammy Awards, where he performed earlier this year. The prodigy played with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center at age 10 and at the White House for the Obamas at 12.
This summer, he’s on a world tour that brings him to Aspen for four performances at the JAS Café on Saturday and Sunday.
“He’s a kid that’s turned the world on its ear,” said Jazz Aspen founder Jim Horowitz, who began trying to get Alexander on stage here as soon as he heard him last year.
The story goes that his mom and dad bought him an electric keyboard when he was 6 years old and he quickly developed his uncanny skill for jazz and improvisation. His parents are jazz-heads, whose records the young pianist simply learned by ear. Before long, he was mastering songs like Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” and “Monk’s Dream” in his own swinging rendition.
Alexander played for Herbie Hancock when the jazz legend was on a good will trip to Jakarta and won an all-ages competition in Europe when he was 9. YouTube videos of his performances went viral and caught the attention of the jazz world, making a fan out of Marsalis — who has become a mentor alongside other contemporary jazz greats. Two years ago, his family moved to New York so Alexander could pursue jazz.
“I learned from Wynton Marsalis how to become a good leader, a serious musician and go deeper in my playing,” Alexander said via email this week. “Wayne Shorter taught me to be different and free.”
To be clear: Alexander is not a novelty act or just a cute kid behind a piano — his formidable, freewheeling interpretations, original compositions and show-stopping performances would be blowing people’s hair back even if he were a grown man.
“At any age, his language is pretty special,” Marsalis said of Alexander earlier this year in “60 Minutes” profile of the young pianist. “But at the age of 12, you almost think, you know, I might even believe in reincarnation, perhaps.”
His second album, “Countdown,” is due out next month and includes his original “City Lights,” which wowed on the Grammy broadcast (and earned a standing ovation from the luminaries in attendance).
After jamming with Chick Corea recently, the legendary pianist told him “Keep the fun, always” — a piece of advice he’s held on to tightly.
Of course, just having turned 13, fun is important. And in between acclaimed performances at venues like Lincoln Center, the White House, the Newport Jazz Festival and Monterey Jazz Festival, Alexander still makes some time for kids’ stuff — swimming, movies and playing with friends, he said. But playing jazz, with its swing feel and improvisation, is also a lot of fun when you’re Joey Alexander.
“Self-expression is what I love most about it,” he said.
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