Friday night I went to an outdoor performance of the North Carolina Symphony, part of their Summerfest series. I hadn’t really paid much attention to what was on the schedule, just that they would be performing some Gershwin, in particular “An American in Paris”. I’ve enjoyed their Gershwin performances, so I wanted to be at this performance. This time the symphony did not bring in Timo Andres, who was a guest the previous two times I heard them perform Gershwin. Instead, the guest was a pianist named Joey Alexander along with his Joey Alexander Trio. I hadn’t heard of him, but I’ve also somewhat stopped paying attention to modern jazz groups, much preferring the jazz of the mid-20th century. I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve largely found more modern efforts somewhat lacking. One theory I have is that as jazz training moved out of the clubs and into college classrooms, it lost some of its life as it became institutionalized. It doesn’t feel as energetic or organic, that it perhaps must now conform to structured rules and lesson plans, innovating in a prescribed manner.
In the case of Joey Alexander and his trio, though, I have been missing out. I was surprised when the conductor announced that the pianist joining them was a 12-year-old from Bali, Indonesia. I was a little skeptical at first, wondering why on earth they would bring in someone so young to perform with the NC Symphony. He quickly changed my mind, though, and by the end of the night I was wondering how the NC Symphony had gotten him to little ol’ Cary, North Carolina. His performance has that life and energy I’ve been missing, both as the trio performed works from George Gershwin and Thelonious Monk as well as Alexander’s original compositions. It is for good reason Alexander became the youngest person ever nominated for a Grammy. He is the level of good that seeing someone at such a young age be so accomplished already leaves you thinking about all the time you’ve wasted over the years and what you might have been able to accomplish had you only applied yourself more. While I’ve been writing this post I’ve had this concert playing in the background; check it out to see what I mean (the concert actually starts 11:30 in):
During Friday’s concert the conductor mentioned an anecdote from when George Gershwin first heard Ethel Merman perform in Girl Crazy. Gershwin allegedly advised her to never take a music lesson because they would ruin her natural talent. I kind of feel the same way about Alexander and hope he doesn’t attend a college for music. Perhaps one reason his performance has the energy of a bygone era is that much of his training has come from listening to old recordings and jamming with professional musicians in Bali and Jakarta. On the other hand, two other members of his trio, bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., both attended Julliard, so perhaps there is hope of attending college and still keeping the life in jazz (Friday’s performance featured the talented Kyle Poole on drums, who does not appear to be a Julliard student, so that’s a point in favor of learning in the clubs; I’ve found several drummers listed with the trio so it seems like that position has had some rotation). I want to keep track of Alexander and his trio and look forward to hearing what the future brings them!