He says he doesn’t feel any different to other kids his age. “I just happen to play music,” points out jazz pianist Joey Alexander (Denpasar, Bali, 2003). However this “normal” teenager has a tour of Spain, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, France, Germany and Norway in his diary for July. Seven countries in a month for a boy who has just turned 14, an adolescent who puts Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane at the top of his list of favourite artists.
What to most of us seems rare, he sees as normal. He has spent half of his still short life seated at a piano. He started learning at six, was invited to join jam sessions in Indonesia at eight and played with the great Wynton Marsalis at eleven. At that same age he became the first Indonesian musician to featured on the Billboard 200 chart with his debut album. Now he has two records, My Favorite Things and Countdown, and these have earned him no fewer than three Grammy nominations. Today, Friday, this young artist performs live in Spain for the first time on the first day of the Portón del Jazz festival in Alhaurín de la Torre.
Joey Alexander answers the telephone first thing in the morning in New York, the city he moved to with his parents three years ago when his career took an international turn. His talent soon became too big for Bali, his birthplace, and the Indonesian capital Jakarta was the family’s next step, so that Joey could “better his craft and explore music more”. And from there, encouraged by praise from Herbie Hancock and Marsalis himself, they headed for the Big Apple.
Joey’s father Denny, at his side during our conversation, explains his early progress. “We believe it’s God’s gift and we’re thankful every day,” he says. But he’s not afraid of any negative effect success at such a young age could have on his son: “Being afraid would destroy everything we have fought for and sacrificed for. And I think we just have to focus on the right thing,” says Denny. “Fame is not what we are aiming for; it’s about growing and enjoying what you’re doing.”
And Joey does just that, he has fun playing his music, but “it’s also serious”, he says in the surprisingly deep voice typical of a boy turning into a man. “I never thought about it as a game.”
Improvisation has been more serious than just a hobby for him for much of his life. “I was doing jam sessions when I was eight. My parents took me to jazz clubs so I could see the musicians playing and every time there was a jam session they would ask me to come up and play something. That was the start for me,” he explains.
- But didn’t you feel intimidated by the adults?
–No, I just wanted to play.
However despite this unusual childhood, he insists: “I don’t consider myself a prodigy.” Neither does he feel different from other adolescents of his generation.
“I happen to be playing music, loving music. Some kids my age do other things, they do dancing, some of my friends do art,” he says.
But few 14-year-olds would put Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Aretha Franklin at the top of their favourite artists list, although this does also have space for Bruno Mars and Michael Jackson. These are names, though, that have influenced and inspired him; they’re not his idols. “I don’t idolise anyone,” he adds.
Joey’s music is the product of his instinct rather than any music training. His education, he says, has been the people he has had the “privilege” to share the stage with, such as Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra. “I play with intuition but really understanding the music,” he adds.
The pianist is aware that he has devoted his childhood to jazz, but doesn’t feel like he’s missed out on anything.
“I’m always thankful for playing this music, and I’m touring around the world - it’s always a blessing for me,” he says. His schooling is done online “so when I do my music, I still have time to do my schoolwork,” he says. And when he’s not doing either of the two, “I do a little bit of exercise, I watch movies and play games.”
Joey, whose ambition simply involves continuing to play the piano - and getting the Grammy he has missed out on three times -, says he is looking forward to his concert in Spain, a country he has never been to before.
Earlier this week all he knew about this country were the few snippets he had been told: “I heard you have a big soccer team,” he says, although he quickly admits he’s not a big football fan. Fortunately he’d also heard “it’s a beautiful place”.
By the time Joey has finished his concert in Alhaurín de la Torre this evening, he’s bound to know a whole lot more.