Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Well-Tempered Piano Players: Joey Alexander and Ramsey Lewis

Joey Alexander at the piano. (Photo: Rebecca Meek)

The 30th Annual Toronto Jazz Festival wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and in spite of the often-confused line-up that included KC and the Sunshine Band and Sarah McLachlan, the real focus was on jazz piano players. Among the featured musicians in the festival were the wonderful Bill Charlap Trio, Montreal’s Oliver Jones, Australian Matt Baker, newcomer Alfredo Rodriguez from Cuba, and the one and only Chick Corea. But the important concert for me was on June 30th at Koerner Hall. The very popular Joey Alexander and his Trio made their Toronto stage debut in a double bill with the “legendary” Ramsey Lewis Quartet. The concert was a fine example of the generational shift in jazz: Alexander is 13 years old; Lewis turned 81 last May. What Lewis and Alexander shared was the importance of improvised music and the need to break new ground. Jazz wouldn’t be jazz without it. The result was an engaging evening of music that was frequently challenging to the ears.

The 13-year-old Indonesian-born Joey Alexander and his trio (Dan Chmielinski, bass, and Ulysses Owens, Jr., drums) opened the concert with a set full of youthful energy that was almost too fast and musically scattered for its own good. But what came into focus during the band’s hour-long performance was a young, talented artist who could only get better. Largely self-taught, Joey’s parents encouraged their son to play the keyboard as a treatment for his hyper-activity and short attention span. By dipping into his father’s jazz collection, Joey immediately took to the music he was hearing with a savant-like keenness. He was able to replicate the music he was hearing on a keyboard. After seeing the boy perform on YouTube, Wynton Marsalis followed up and invited Joey and his parents to New York. The rest, as they say, is history. By the end of 2015 Alexander had a Grammy-nominated album (My Favorite Things) and, this past spring, got to play at the White House.

A 60 Minutes (CBS) profile in January really helped introduce Joey to a wider audience. As reporter Anderson Cooper points out in the piece, he’s definitely “gifted.” Alexander has a conceptual sense of the music and he’s absolutely fearless as an improviser, which is a healthy combination in jazz. So for this anticipated concert, I set my expectations low to spite the hype. I wanted to see if Alexander was any good beyond a 15-minute puff piece, and presumably so did the sell-out crowd in Koerner Hall.

I was really impressed by his chops. Alexander played the piano with great weight for his small frame, as if he was playing the drums with his bare hands. He even stood up in front of the keyboard on many occasions, too energized to sit on his stool. He never limited himself to the middle register and frequently shaped his chords to include the whole keyboard. But the intense and often relentless music from his band was often too much to bear as the group raced through “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane and “Off Minor” by Thelonious Monk. In a clever move to alleviate the tension-filled hour, the group played with a structured ebb and flow. For instance, on “Giant Steps,” the band would swing hard for a time then suddenly go into a half-tempo groove only to recapitulate, and then finish in unison. Clearly this group feels the music as much as it hears it. It was hard to believe that this young man has only been on the scene since he was 11. As peculiar as it was, Joey wasn’t merely jamming with some older players as a stunt; he was leading a band through a set.

Often child prodigies are set up to entertain an audience without offending their better nature. Remember Montrealer Nikki Yanofsky? When she came out in 2006 (at the age of 12), with a big voice matched by an equally big promotional campaign, I can remember colleagues who heard her at a showcase suggesting to me that she was the real deal, not just an “Ella Fitzgerald” imitator. Then I heard her first album, Ella: Of Thee I Sing that she recorded at the age of 14. I wasn’t impressed nor convinced that she was “the real deal” because the record was too polished and the arrangements left no room for error. On some of the tracks her scat singing, which is the only chance a jazz vocalist can truly shine, was actually written into the arrangement – sucking the life out of the song while protecting the singer from failure. Joey Alexander, on the other hand, has allowed himself to take risks because it energizes his playing; what will he hear next? How will he respond to his bass player and drummer? On this night, it was simpatico between all three musicians, expressing the kind of freedom every jazz musician spends a lifetime seeking out in performance – a chance Yanofsky may never get unless she can be free to sing whatever she wants. Joey Alexander plays whatever he wants and even at such a young age, seems to be tapping into his own, albeit youthful feelings. But for the most part, what he lacked in emotional depth, he and his band made up for in spirited improvisation. His second studio album, Countdown, (Motema Music) is expected in September.

Ramsey Lewis.

In complete contrast to the Alexander set, The Ramsey Lewis Quartet opened casually with Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” moving right into one of his original songs called “Clouds In Reverie,” a modal tune loosely based on “Milestones” by Miles Davis. Whether he planned it or not, Lewis fused the swing era with the post-bop modal sounds of the sixties with remarkable ease. It was at times astonishing how he could play from era to the next without losing his own voice in the process. The entire set, even with some rehearsed moments, was seamless.

At another point during the concert Lewis expressed his wonderful sense of harmony and music history. He sat at the piano and started playing the graceful ballad “In the Still Of The Night” seguing into “I Love You,” both written by Cole Porter. Each tune was fully embellished before he launched into the pop standard “Since I Fell For You” with the rest of his band. It was one of the highlights of the evening as Lewis expressed new emotional insights into familiar music. Only a musician of his age and stature could bring that kind of depth to a tune he’s probably played hundreds of times in as long as Joey Alexander has graced this planet. Lewis is completely comfortable playing blues, jazz, gospel and R&B. A spirited version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” made everybody move.

As the show continued Lewis decided to play a blues number and his entire band was showcased in what felt like an extended jam session. Guitarist Henry Johnson was so impressive with his ideas that Lewis actually took notice and turned around to look at him with a confident smile. Clearly, Lewis was enjoying the moment, as we all were, taken by Johnson’s breathless playing, musical innovation and the originality with which his ideas flowed. In fact the whole band, which includes Joshua Ramos, bass, and Charles Heath, drums, created an evening of discovery even with the tried and true, such as “Wade In The Water” and “The In Crowd,” two of Lewis’s biggest hits. But for Ramsey Lewis it was all about the present rather than some recreation of the past for the fans. Only a musician with his chops and life-long experience could reach such a pinnacle on stage. I look forward to the day when Joey Alexander reaches his too.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. His first book, Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) will be released in September.

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