Joey Alexander Trio at The National Concert Hall, 12 July 2017
After a few welcoming words from the concert promoter (applauded enthusiastically by the excited crowd), Colette Cassidy and Nigel Clark begin the evening’s proceedings with a short set: three songs from their new album, ‘Confetti Falling In The Rain’, and three standards that really showed off Cassidy’s voice. Their rendition of In A Sentimental Mood is particularly good – Clark’s extemporary introduction and imaginative soloing and Cassidy’s expressive singing, on Duke Ellington’s wonderful melody. Their Blue Gas Flame dresses the familiar chords of Autumn Leaves with a new top line, a clever method by which jazz composers prolong their (and their audience’s) interest in well-worn songs. A perfectly pitched support slot by a pair of supremely talented and experienced performers.
The audience is very broad – the promoter made a special effort to encourage young people to attend, and it’s great to see such a mix of ages. When children attend ‘grown-up’ concerts, there is a tendency to feel slightly patronising: “look, child, how the adults make the lofty art”. This is very different, though. Joey Alexander is a child. At the age of eight he was impressing Herbie Hancock and being exhorted to move from his homeland of Bali to New York City. He has a truly formidable gift. He plays and it is the adults in the audience who are astounded by his fluency of expression.
Bowing and beaming at the audience as he walks across the National Concert Hall stage, Alexander’s awkward demeanour is exactly what you’d expect of a fourteen-year-old kid staring out at a sea of strangers’ faces. With as little fuss as possible he takes his place at the Steinway piano and begins Paul McCartney’s masterpiece, Blackbird, in a rendition that grew from Brad Mehldau’s intricate reading of the piece. Alexander almost immediately puts his stamp on it, playing the iconic rising sequence and then immediately repeating it with a reharmonisation that catches the ear. The sense of rhythm and groove in his solo playing here is definitely something he’s gleaned from Mehldau. At the very end, he goes into an exciting high ostinato underpinned by low chords. “I love playing that song,” he effuses, standing up when the piece is over to briefly thank the audience.
Colette Cassidy comes out and sings Charlie Chaplin’s enduring song Smile, which she dedicates to her mother in the audience. It’s, again, a performance full of character and invention, Alexander accompanying the vocalist with great sensitivity and also lashings of style. The second verse he accompanies with a stop-start, halting motion that pulls against Cassidy’s beautiful treatment of the melody in a really interesting way. The chords he chooses for the last cadence also pull us away from where we were expecting it to resolve. This is characteristic of the night, this searching out for new ideas.
In an age where we have access to everything, most of us have coped with the deluge by filtering heavily, sticking to our favourites. Perhaps the genius that Joey Alexander possesses is his capacity to assimilate so much into his playing. He’s able to draw on his influences and not simply produce pastiche.
He introduces his two bandmates as they walk out onto the stage: Willie Jones III on drums and Alexander Claffy on bass. They crack out two originals, Faithful and City Lights, and we settle in for the main event, adjusting to the new lowered position of our collective jaws. The stage is attractively illuminated by three pools of light on the players and a jumble of squares of orangey light surrounding them. Faithful is a five-beat jazz waltz that swings along and allows some tasty drumming breaks from Jones. City Lights alternates a funky latin-style first section with a more straight ahead swing section. As his solo intensifies, Alexander stands up from the bench, something that, unfortunately, he’ll grow out of being able to do comfortably (…although Keith Jarrett still does it!). A new musical idea takes over as an outro, an infectious samba beat that has us clicking and humming as we get our interval drinks.
The band return to the stage, Alexander sloping on endearingly. The bass player’s jacket comes off, water is sipped, and the trio launch into a blistering version of Countdown. This formidable John Coltrane tune, the title track of Alexander’s 2016 album, really made people sit up and take notice. (There’s a studio video on YouTube that is a staggering display of joyous virtuosity.)
The gospel-flavoured Sunday Waltz follows, finishing on a funky, slow-jam outro. Another original, Space, and then, in a touching gesture, we are treated to a gorgeous version of the Irish folk tune, Slane, known throughout the world as the powerful hymn Be Thou My Vision. (There’s a nice moment as pianist and bassist toast each other with their stage water bottles. They glance over, expectantly, at their drummer companion, but he has no water. It’s a small moment of camaraderie, a glimpse of what we hope for in music-making, that it’s infused with humanity and love.)
My Favourite Things sashays along, very chilled. To finish, a boogie-woogie blues jam that reveals itself as Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser. There’s a cool shift of emphasis in the drums and the trio lock into a grooving outro. With gratitude to God, Alexander wishes us a great night. He does some high, sparkling flourishes before latching onto the familiar notes of the Jackson 5 refrain, “ABC, easy as one, two, three…”. They get quieter and quieter, ending in a happy hush that is punctured by the elated applause of the audience.
The concert finishes at a quarter to eleven. Joey Alexander is a generous, sweet, supremely inventive musician; a skilled collaborator and an exciting composer (his third album, to be released in this his fifteenth year, will include six of his own compositions). Adjust your filters – you’re going to want Joey Alexander in your world.