Alexander Wows Sell-Out Crowd, Shows Depth Way Beyond His Years
by Scott Homewood
Photo by Shayla Abbott
If you hadn’t heard of Joey Alexander before Saturday night’s show at Middle C Jazz, or maybe just heard his music casually on your favorite satellite jazz music channel, you may not have known what to expect from last night’s show and could almost be forgiven for not being there. But if you WERE there, you were certainly schooled on the concept of expectations. Alexander, a 16 year-old phenom pianist not only played the hell out of a $170,000 Steinway specially delivered just for his performances but excelled at widening eyes, dropping jaws, and perplexing minds.
Humble and visibly shy when he spoke to the audience, the bespectacled Alexander kept the patter to a minimum as he basically showed appreciation to the audience, named songs and, introduced the members of his trio. Alexander blessed the packed Middle C by playing a set chock full of songs from his upcoming album “Warna” to be released January 31st on the Universal label, after having done his first five albums under the Motema banner. The word “warna” means “colour” in Alexander’s native language of Bahasa and refers to the dimensions Alexander feels he’s been adding to his music as he matures as an artist. To be sure, anyone at Middle C should be grateful to have seen him in such an intimate setting because they may never get that chance again now that he’s been signed to a major label deal. 2020 sounds like it will be a banner year for Alexander, as it should be for someone of his innate talent.
When I interviewed Alexander a few weeks ago, he spoke quite a bit about spirituality and his church and how deeply connected he felt to the music there. I left it out of my blog. After watching his performance I feel that was a mistake. As a relative youngster, he has not yet become jaded about revealing his deepest feelings. An artist with more years behind him might keep those inner things secret from prying writers but like his music, Alexander is wide open and hides nothing. His deepening spiritual side is definitely displayed not only in the titles of his songs, but also the feeling one gets while he plays. His upcoming album reveals it as well. Not just content to play rote covers of classics like Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge”, Alexander adds a depth to them the composer would have been proud to hear. Other songs from “Warna” b esides “Inner Urge” played for Middle C attendees during his performances the other night include “Warna”, “Lonely Streets”, “Downtime”, “The Light” and a spellbinding “Tis Our Prayer” that had more than one observer mention how awestruck the performance made them feel. Alexander and his trio created almost as much a spiritual vibration as a sound. To hear them create it fresh, intimately right in front of us was astounding as their souls connected to the music as the yin (space vibration) & yang (time vibration) of a heartbeat. When entering the heart and souls of the listeners, Alexander’s space (melody) wonderfully opened up into time (dark matter). It was simplicity personified yet conversely very complex and fertile. The heart, the center, the mystery — all were there in abundance and became true jazz.
Helping Alexander create magic were drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Chris Funn. Scott’s pure artistry was astounding to watch in his own right, as he used his drumsticks, or mallets, or brushes or any of his many percussive tools like a painter would use a paintbrush. Each song was his canvas as he used every part of the instrument to create the perfect sound to augment Alexander’s intoxicating melodies. Never satisfied with simply keeping time, Scott often used just the tiniest of touches to move sound, such as waving his brush just forcefully enough in front of the microphone, without touching a drum with it mind you, to create a subtle whoosh to add atmosphere to “Tis Our Prayer”. As a drummer, he has a poet’s soul. Grenadier was equally amazing, splayed fingers dancing like spiderlegs as they ran up and back adding much-needed depth to the overall soundscape of the trio. That each one of these musicians was under the age of twenty-five is mindblowing!
(Trivia for Charlotte music mainstays – the bass was provided by local bass legend Ron Brendle (who will be playing a show with his trio in January at Middle C) and drums belonging to the late Charlotte dummer Jim Lackey, who used to play jazz at The Cajun Queen, were used by Scott.)
Once again, the forces behind Middle C have brought something special to the city of Charlotte few other venues would dare attempt. If you were there, you know how spellbinding Alexander’s performances were. If you weren’t, please resolve to become a regular. This is only the start of the kinds of soul-enriching music you are going to find here.