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Alexander provides unique musical experience

Joey Alexander

“He played with freedom, he played with passion, and he played with an amazing level of communication and interplay with his trio….”

Such was this observation by a musician colleague who was among the many Bermuda Festival-goers who attended the Mid-Ocean Amphitheatre on Saturday night — with great anticipation — to experience firsthand the music of Joey Alexander, the extraordinary young prodigy from Bali who, at 12, was the youngest jazz artist ever to be nominated for a Grammy Award.

Two award nominations actually: “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” and “Best Improvised Solo”. It proved to be a most memorable evening. From the opening number, an original composition entitled Faithful to John Coltrane’s Countdown — which Joey described as “quite a hard piece to play” — to the closer, another original entitled City Lights, the trio of Joey on piano, Alexander Claffy on bass and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums delighted us with their interpretation of their varied repertoire.

In fact, such was the level of empathy and interplay between these musicians that the original tunes of Joey’s and at times even the Monk and Coltrane classics sounded more like spontaneous improvisations rather than previously composed tunes.

Indeed, Joey explained after playing Space — another one of his originals — that the band had played that song a lot … but that it was different every time. No surprise there!

The evening’s proceedings were opened by local musicians Chris Darrell, Brian Swan and Cal Worrell, who are known as the AMG (Atlantic Music Group) Trio. They treated the audience to their own take on standard tunes and some original numbers which were pleasing and interesting to listen to.

Their musical offering was well received and indeed it was nice to see local musicians being afforded the opportunity to perform on the same stage as visiting artists.

As if to emphasize this, the MC, in his remarks after AMG’s performance, took the occasion to note that “Bermudian talent deserves more exposure....”, receiving a round of approving applause from the audience.

Following a short break to reset the stage, the Joey Alexander Trio wasted no time letting everyone hear what they felt with their music.

Throughout their set they played lyrically and with a passion that kept everyone enthralled with their ability to make each song sound like a composition with several movements. Even if the songs were not the most recognisable, the calibre of their musicianship more than compensated for that minor detraction.

Joey amazed us with his feel for the music and his leadership of the trio, Ulysses Owens captivated us with his amazing technique and feel on drums while Alex Claffy provided a strong foundation with a beautifully warm tone and some wonderful solos. From time to time, Joey would rise from the piano stool and play while standing up, creating an image which was reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, the jazz piano legend who frequently played that way during his performances for many years before having to abandon the practice for health reasons.

In Joey Alexander’s case however, he is presently of the ideal size and height to play whilst standing to the piano without any strain on the body. As he explained afterwards, playing that way enables him to look further into the piano and gives him a greater sense of control over the instrument and his music.

Sitting there in the amphitheatre listening, one could easily forget that this jazz genius is only 13 years old. He plays and communicates (musically) with his trio with the maturity of a seasoned professional many times his age.

The audience was clearly delighted and so enthralled by what they heard, that they could be forgiven, on this occasion, for breaking into spontaneous applause at numerous times in the middle of the musicians’ solos.

From the start to the all-too-soon finish, we were treated to a unique musical experience that seemed to leave everyone wanting more. Indeed, after the first of two standing ovations, the Trio obliged us with an encore performing yet another one of Alexander’s originals, Sunday Waltz, a collage of the many piano styles which this young prodigy has absorbed into his musical vocabulary, and which proved to be a fitting finale for this evening of musical excellence. The amazing Joey Alexander proved also to be a humble and gracious young man, who, more than once throughout the evening, thanked the Bermuda Festival for bringing him and his group to Bermuda and, also, the audience for coming out to his concert.

The Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts is to be commended for presenting such a memorable night of music, and one can only hope for more in the future.