On 'Warna,' Joey Alexander Transforms From Child Prodigy To Jazz Fixture

Feb 5, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 7:04 pm

Sooner or later, every child prodigy hits a fork in the road: Keep doing the crowd-pleasing, trained-seal tricks that brought fame? Or set out to develop a more individual sound?

From the moment 11-year-old Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander gained international attention in 2015, it was clear that he wasn't your average young phenom. He had seemingly limitless technique and a deep understanding of tunes written decades before he was born. Already a fixture in the jazz world with five albums under his belt at only the age of 16, Alexander is clearly charting his own path.

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His latest album is called Warna, which means "color" in his native language, Bahasa. It is profoundly different from everything he's released before; Alexander's playing is less showy and more settled-down than his previous work. The record emphasizes his original compositions, which have broadly singable, surprisingly approachable melodies, and grooves that slide and saunter far from typical swing.

The band for Warna is a trio, with bassist Larry Grenadier, who was featured on Alexander's first album, and drummer Kendrick Scott joining Alexander. The group came together for a run of performances right before the recording session and even though jazz trios can take months or years to develop an identity, they sound fully connected. The three musicians move together in effortless agreement and respond to each other with head-spinning quickness.

Joey Alexander can still dispense dazzling, impossibly inventive runs when he wants to, but it's not his primary game anymore. Instead, on this new album, he brings out the graceful contours and shapes of his original songs – songs that have a thoughtful, old-man wisdom to them. Alexander might be stuck with that whiz-kid prodigy tag for a while longer but his new record shows that his transformation into an artist with no asterisks is well underway.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander was just 11 years old when he burst onto the jazz scene in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING")

CORNISH: He had seemingly limitless technique and a deep understanding of songs written decades before he was born. Since then, Alexander has released five albums. His latest is called "Warna," which means color in his native language. Tom Moon has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Sooner or later, every child prodigy hits that fork in the road - keep on doing the crowd-pleasing, trained-seal tricks that brought fame or set out to develop a more individual sound. Joey Alexander, who's now a fixture in the jazz world at age 16, is clearly charting his own path.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "WARNA")

MOON: Alexander's new album is different from everything he's released before. It's way less showy, more settled down. The emphasis is on his original compositions, which have broadly singable, surprisingly approachable melodies and grooves that slide and saunter far from typical swing.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "DOWNTIME")

MOON: Joining the pianist is bassist Larry Grenadier, who was featured on Alexander's first album, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Jazz trios can take months or years to develop an identity. This group came together for a run of performances right before the recording session. And yet, they sound fully connected. They move in effortless agreement, responding to each other with head-spinning quickness.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "INNER URGE")

MOON: Joey Alexander can still dispense dazzling, impossibly inventive runs when he wants to. It's just not his primary game anymore. On this new album, he brings out the graceful contours and shapes of his original songs; songs that have a thoughtful, old-man wisdom to them. Alexander might be stuck with that whiz-kid prodigy tag for a while longer, but his new record shows that his transformation into an artist - with no asterisks - is well underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "LONELY STREETS")

CORNISH: The latest album from pianist Joey Alexander is called "Warna." Our reviewer was Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY ALEXANDER'S "LONELY STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.