When I went to Bremen for the annual Jazzahead convention in 2015, there was this big hype about 12-year old pianist Joey Alexander who was about to release his debut album “My Favorite Things”. Alas, I wasn’t impressed and his showcase left me cold. But he wasn’t really to blame for it. After all, when you’re 12 years old, you want to explore things, invent, experiment, show off etc. Natural things you’re likely to do at this young age. Technically speaking, there were simply too many notes and this attitude of “look what I’m capable of on the piano”. Again, I’m not really condemning Joey personally for this.
So now, five years later, at age 17, he just released “Warna” at the end of January, his fifth album and his first for a major label (Verve). Warna means color in his native language Bahasa (Indonesia) and here’s an album that sounds much more mature and reflective as you might expect from someone at such a young age. All tracks are original compositions except two by Joe Henderson (“Inner Urge”) and Sting (“Fragile”). Joey has worked with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Kendrick Scott for his new outing. Additional guests are percussionist Luisito Quintero and flutist Anne Drummond.
The percussive title track is an enticing piece, with a driving force reminiscent of some Ahmad Jamal moments. Luisito’s work on this powerful tune is amazing. There is a joyful beauty on “Mosaic (Of Beauty)”, yet again having me think about Ahmad Jamal and his signature tune “Poinciana”, in its bass lines and shuffling groove. A very strong piece which also shows how much more controlled and introspective Joey’s playing has become over the years. “Lonely Streets”, a song about America’s small towns, embraces a sweet melancholy and features superb drum work by Kendrick. But it also shows enough drama and suspense to keep it away from becoming too stale. The dynamics of Joey’s playing on “Downtime” would suggest someone much more mature and secure. The alluring groove of the piece is both vulnerable and engaging at the same time.
“Affirmation” comes along as a ballad at first, but opens up to freer terrain and somehow never seems to keep its momentum (there are two versions of it). The Joe Henderson piece finds him splattering a lot of notes, its basic swing getting fierce and passionate and its tempo almost making your head spin. How refreshing the sound of Anne’s lyrical flute playing comes over on “We Here”, another one of Joey’s heart-warming compositions showing off a lot of depth and excitement. Things turns spiritual on “Tis Our Prayer”, but its scaling measures can become too academic and massive. “Fragile” gets a solid, fair enough treatment, with Luisito showing his more tender and delicate side. And there is the joy and optimism again on “Our Story”. Joey’s own compositions all keep the promise of spring: they are propulsive, compelling, auspicious, and positive. To keep the balance, another spiritual moment is saved for the finale, again with Anne’s passionate flute on the peaceful “The Light”.