A funny thing happened to Joey Alexander over the past five years, a whirlwind period during which he became the most brilliantly precocious talent in jazz history—that is, a renowned festival and concert-hall headliner; the youngest musician ever nominated for a Grammy Award in a jazz category; and a media favorite who’s earned a profile on 60 Minutes, a front-page profile in the New York Times and other premier coverage. As heard on WARNA, his new major-label Verve Records debut, he’s simply become one of the most expressive and thrilling pianist-composers currently at work in jazz. Alexander’s precocity can still stun concertgoers, but his music, including original work and personalized interpretations of great songs, has now taken its rightful place in the spotlight. Translating as “color” from Alexander’s native language of Bahasa, WARNA follows four Motéma Music albums that garnered the pianist three Grammy nominations and such honors as historic critics’ and readers’ poll victories in DownBeat and JazzTimes. But whereas those recordings were documents of an extraordinary young musician in development, WARNA is primarily a collection of reflective, moving new music by an experienced, confident bandleader. He arrived in New York as a lightning bolt in the spring of 2014, performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual fundraising gala. At the helm of a packed-out theater containing some of Manhattan’s most elite arts benefactors, he dropped jaws with a remarkably lyrical rendition of “’Round Midnight.” A standing ovation ensued, and he hasn’t slowed down since. The following spring, the New York Times wrote in an enthusiastic profile that “For a jazz pianist, the mastery entails a staggering breadth of knowledge about harmony, rhythm and orchestration, all converging in an eloquent synthesis. Joey Alexander has a handle on a good deal of that.” From there, he went on to receive three Grammy nominations, with two of Alexander’s four previous albums topping the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. His live performances have been equally celebrated. At the 58th Grammy Awards, in February of 2016, he played during both the pre-telecast and the primetime TV event. That same year, Joey also performed with Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding for the Obamas at the White House, as part of a nationally televised International Jazz Day special. In 2018, Alexander headlined Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater with a 20-piece string section orchestrated and conducted by Grammy nominee Richard DeRosa. On October 18, 2019, he made his triumphant Carnegie Hall debut to a sold-out Zankel Hall crowd. Early on in Joey’s ascent, the trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center leader Wynton Marsalis said that “there has never been anyone … who could play like that at his age.” Marsalis, who essentially “discovered” Alexander via his YouTube videos and invited him to New York, was spot-on in his assessment. But today, in light of WARNA, one could extend their judgment to say that Joey Alexander continues to perform at the highest level.
I had the chance to catch up with Joey about the creation of Warna. We got into how the album grew from the seed of an idea into the flower of sound I get to share with the listeners. We talk about how the musicians that join him were either selected or how they continued the musical conversations they had started earlier. Like I told Joey offline, Warna is an album I have been really happy to advise advise my pals who may not have stumbled onto it themselves to go ahead and when you feel like you need a Sunday morning to breathe, hit play and sink in.