Rising jazz pianist, the Indonesian, Joey Alexander has already achieved three GRAMMY® nominations, performed from the Obama White House to the Grand Ole Opry to most recently, the floor of the United Nations and the child prodigy is still three years shy of legal drinking age. Origin, his debut for Mack Avenue Records, is already his sixth as a leader. The title then is apt as the Latin root of origin is orire, which means “to rise.” That could be taken a couple of ways. Obviously, Alexander’s star continues to rise, and this label signing puts him in the company of a roster that includes Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, and Kenny Garrett, to name just a few. In Alexander’s terms, however, the title has more to do with the being hopeful, as in ‘rise above’ the frustration isolated, stay-at-home state of the pandemic.
This is Alexander’s first album of entirely original material and while part of Alexander’s success and appeal lie in his immense talents at such a youthful age, his music is sophisticated jazz with rich melodic and harmonic interplay, free of gimmicks or commercial overtures. The caliber of his accompanying bandmates would accept nothing less. Alexander returns with the rhythm tandem from his last album, Larry Grenadier (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums) with exceptional guests Gilad Hekselman on guitar and Chris Potter on saxophones augmenting select tracks. Alexander also adds a new flourish, playing Fender Rhodes for just the second time on record (the first being last year’s single, “Salt”).
Alexander plays the Rhodes, favoring its softer sound in one of the two quintet pieces, “Winter Blues,” where he gives plenty of space to Potter’s burning tenor and Hekselman’s distinctive, clean guitar lines in the funky 6/8 piece. Hekselman soars again above Alexander’s Rhodes in the crisp 5/8 “Summer Rising.” The other quintet tune is the standout “Rise Up,” a more freely improvisational turn where the quintet fires up in celebratory, unbridled mode. The piece starts quietly with Alexander and Hekselman seemingly doodling but when Potter enters on tenor, blowing aggressively the guitarist answers with fiery runs of his own while Alexander comps and Scott and Grenadier keep pushing the groove. Alexander delivers his own jagged lines before all join in a rousing climax. Potter also appears on soprano on the challenging long-from “On the Horizon,” playing expressively with exceptional tone as Alexander takes the opposite tact, delivering a calm, fluid solo with space. When Potter returns, he’s a bit more relaxed as if the conversation between the two has gone to a different level. The contrast between the delicate and the intense is riveting.
The others are trio renderings, beginning with the opening “Remembering,” a gorgeous, lush piece where the pianist settles in to create a mood, never overplaying. His career has taken such a steep trajectory over the past eight years, that the pandemic provided breathing room, and this tune is his way of expressing gratefulness. There is terrific interplay with Scott and Grenadier, especially in the robust mid-section. A more contemplative piece with similar sentiment is “Angel Eyes.” To convey his emotions, Alexander names all four seasons in his compositions. Beyond the aforementioned “Winter Blues” and “Summer Rising” is the delicate, Latin-tinged “Dear Autumn,” with Grenadier’s bass intro setting the initial tone that eventually builds into more animated sequences to connote the notion of harvest time or gathering up. “The Promise of Spring” though is the essence of serenity with it judiciously chosen notes and chords.
Although the album was recorded in New York and is inspired mostly by the feelings of the pandemic shutdown, Alexander couldn’t help but nod to his homeland in the trance-like “Midnight Waves,’ inspired by his beachside stay on a return trip to Bali, where he spent his formative years. The tune is also a feature for Grenadier who, like Alexander, plays in a style that leaves plenty of space. The album ends rather oddly, with just a two-minute piece, the unresolved progression of “Hesitation,” posing the unanswerable question of “What’s Next?” In Alexander’s case, he’s already had a career that’s the envy of many at his youthful age. The impressive takeaways here are his gorgeous harmonics, his willingness to be explorative and to intently listen to his bandmates rather than being overly demonstrative. He’s already attained a level of maturity well beyond his years.
- Jim Hynes