Joey Alexander: From The Heart
Nominated for two Grammy Awards, jazz pianist Joey Alexander Sila is talented beyond his years. At just 12 years old, the Bali-born musician has had the honour of performing for jazz legend Herbie Hancock and former US President Bill Clinton, who both now count themselves as fans.
Interview and photography by Binsar Napitupulu
“Jazz to me is freedom to express myself, my style – I love the improvisation and the swing. If there’s no swing, it’s not jazz,” says Joey. It’s hard to remember that Joey is still a kid whenever he’s behind the piano keys and when he gets philosophical about his love for jazz.
A natural talent, Joey began playing at the age of six. He was a hyperactive child, so his parents – Denny and Fara – bought him a small keyboard so he could have an outlet for his energy. His father, a musician himself and avid jazz enthusiast, taught him his first basic chords. Within a year he had taught himself complex jazz melodies simply by listening to his father’s old jazz records. He counts Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk as his greatest early influences when learning how to play by ear.
Quick to notice their son’s talent, Joey’s parents hired a piano instructor who attempted to train Joey in classical music. His formal lessons in Indonesia were short-lived.
“Joey always wanted to improvise. His piano teacher wasn’t too happy about him trying to improvise Chopin and Tchaikovsky. I could tell it meant Joey wanted to be free. He was meant to play jazz, because jazz allows that freedom to express himself,” says his father.
Joey began expressing himself at jam sessions on stages across Indonesia. Videos of him playing went viral and caught the attention of Wynton Marsalis, the managing and artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) in New York. He was so impressed by what he heard, he invited Joey, who was 10 years old at the time, to perform at their annual gala, their biggest event of the year.
His performance won him rave reviews and made him a bona fide jazz sensation overnight. The concert changed his life. His family relocated to New York, and Marsalis became his mentor.
Joey started touring the world, booking gigs and winning fans. Within months of arriving he also began recording his first studio album, My Favorite Things, which would go on to top the Billboard 200 in the Jazz Albums and Traditional Jazz Albums charts and garner a Grammy nomination in two categories (Instrumental Jazz Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo), making him the youngest ever Grammy nominee in a jazz category.
He was also the youngest person ever to be invited to play at the Newport Jazz Festival, considered by many as the biggest stage there is for a jazz artist. Newport crowds are a discerning set, but Joey drew standing ovations – a testament to his mastery of improvisation and maturity in interpreting jazz music in a unique, personal style.
Despite his exceptional talent, Joey remains a humbly polite boy from Bali. He has his reservations about people who like to call him a ‘prodigy’.
“I appreciate it. But I think for me, I just wanna be called a jazz musician. My playing comes from my heart, not from technique or anything. It’s from the heart. And that’s jazz. It comes from the groove.”