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Indonesian Pianist, 12, Wows Jazz World

The jazz world has a new great musician. Joey Alexander is pictured here with legendary Herbie Hancock at the Apollo Theater, New York City, October 2014. Joey, by the way, is the child. (AP PHOTO)

The jazz world has a new great musician. Joey Alexander is pictured here with legendary Herbie Hancock at the Apollo Theater, New York City, October 2014. Joey, by the way, is the child. (AP PHOTO)

People who listen to Joey Alexander play the piano say they are listening to the future of jazz.

And Joey is only 12 years old.

But musicians who work with the 12-year-old are the first to say that age does not matter.

The music industry seems to agree. The young pianist earned two Grammy nominations this year, one for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” and one for “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.”

He is one of the youngest musicians ever to earn a Grammy nomination.

Jason Olaine produced Joey's debut album titled My Favorite Things. To anyone who doubts young Joey’s abilities, Olaine says,“Just close your eyes, and listen to Joey."

The road from Bali to New York City

Joey Alexander was born Josiah Alexander Sila in Bali, Indonesia. At age 6, he learned to play jazz by ear. Playing music by ear means to learn a piece of music just by listening to it, not by reading notes.

Joey’s parents are not musicians. They ran a travel business. His father played a little piano and guitar, but not professionally. However, Joey says when he saw his father play, he wanted to try.

"Well, my dad played a little piano and guitar, but not that professionally. And then I saw him play and then he make me like, I want to play, I want to try this instrument.”

Watching his father play music influenced the young boy. So did his father’s record collection. He learned jazz by listening to these records. He says he listened to jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Bill Strayhorn, among others.

“Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, Coltrane and Bill Evans. I hear all these amazing musicians."

New York City comes calling

Joey’s family moved from Bali to Jakarta. There Joey played with some of Indonesia's best jazz artists. Joey's parents then decided to give up their travel business and move the family to New Jersey, close to New York City.

By the time Joey was 10, the Lincoln Center in New York City invited him to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Olaine, who produced Joey’s first album, is also the director of programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Olaine remembers the reactions of musicians who were there for a rehearsal when Joey performed a Thelonius Monk tune. The expression he uses is "everybody's jaws dropped."

"Joey plays a version of "Round Midnight," and everybody's jaws dropped, like looking at Joey and looking at each other… and they're laughing, like 'This can't possibly be what we're hearing.' He took another take afterwards, it was a completely different arrangement. And again, everyone (laughs) ... you kind of shrug your shoulders, look at each other, scratch your head, and just go 'Okay, all right, I've never seen this before.' "

One of the musicians on Joey's debut album had a similar reaction. Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. is 32 years old. But, he says their 20-year age difference means nothing. He and Joey connected through music right from the start.

Owens remembers watching the young pianist play "Giant Steps." “Giant Steps” is a song that could win Joey a Grammy in February for Best Improvised Jazz Solo.

"I think it was the intro. Every time we did 'Giant Steps,' Joey always loved to do an intro, without the band … And one of the second or third intros, he went to this whole other place, musically. And I watched him, I watched him close his eyes, and I watched his head kinda of just bobbing to the side, he has this thing that he does when he's really going somewhere… and I was like 'This is freakin' amazing,'"

Owens describes Joey’s harmonic and melodic adventures as hip and in the next stratosphere. In other words Joey’s piano playing is simply out of this world!

"Watching this little kid, he's going on all these harmonic adventures, and melodic adventures, and doing some really hip stuff, and he's just gone, he's just completely in this next stratosphere, I'm like, that is a gift, man, and when I open my eyes and look at him, that's what I saw, man, this kid is literally from another planet. And it's so beautiful to watch."

Just a normal kid

Joey is home-schooled. And when he is not performing and blowing the minds of jazz greats, he says he is just a normal kid. He likes the music of Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles. He also likes playing with toys, playing sports and watching movies.

"You know, I'm still me as a kid .. playing toys. I play sports, like I play a little bit of tennis, swimming … you know, like a normal kid, I watch movies."

Joey says he is grateful for all the support he has received during his musical journey. He says that he is excited to be part of the New York jazz scene. And now, Joey can follow his dream -- playing jazz for people to bring them joy and hope.

"I hope that they will feel the joy because this music is so joyful and it touches people's hearts. When I play I always hope people will be joyful in their lives and to have hope."

I’m Anna Matteo.

Heidi Chang reported this story for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

debut n. the first time an actor, musician, athlete, etc., does something in public or for the public

play by ear idiomatic expression : to play a song or a piece of music by ear is to play it after hearing it without looking at written music.

amazing adj. causing great surprise or wonder

rehearsal n. an event at which a person or group practices an activity (such as singing, dancing, or acting) in order to prepare for a public performance

jaws dropped idiomatic expression : If your jaw drops, you open your mouth in a way that shows you are very surprised or shocked.

take n. a song that is recorded a scene that is filmed or at one time without stopping

intro n. a short introduction to something (such as a performance or a musical work)

bob v. to move up and down quickly or repeatedly

harmonic – adj. technical : of or relating to musical harmony rather than melody or rhythm

adventure n. an exciting experience

melodic – adj. of or relating to melody

hip adj. knowing about and following the newest styles, fashions, etc.

stratosphere n. the upper layer of the Earth's atmosphere that begins about 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the Earth's surface and ends about 30 miles (50 kilometers) above the Earth's surface : a very high position, level, or amount

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