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Grammy-nominated jazz piano prodigy to make Maui debut

Joey Alexander aims to use music to ‘uplift people’s souls’

Three-time Grammy-nominated jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander will make his Valley Isle debut at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. STEVIE CHRIS photo

When jazz legend Wynton Marsalis first heard Joey Alexander play the piano, he was stunned.

“I’ve never heard anyone who could play like him,” Marsalis told Anderson Cooper on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

When the “Little Jazz Man” profile on the remarkable virtuoso aired in 2016, Alexander was only 12 years old.

Born in Bali, Indonesia, he made his U.S. debut at 10, invited by Marsalis to perform at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala. He played a solo version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” to a standing ovation.

“We all have different talents and it so happens that my talent is in music,” the now 18-year-old Alexander said in explaining his remarkable ability. “I believe the gift of playing is from God. I am just thankful to share my music with people wherever I go.”

Set to make his Maui debut on Thursday, the self-taught musician began to learn how to play piano at age 6, listening to his father’s jazz recordings of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Monk. After moving with his family to Jakarta, at age 8, he played for jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who was in the Indonesian capital as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. That was the day he decided to dedicate his childhood to jazz.

“It was all a process of listening and playing with people for me to truly love this American art form,” he said about his passion for jazz. “It is very special and rich, and I can have a conversation with other musicians and have the freedom to express myself.”

By age 9, he won the Grand Prix at the first Master-Jam Festival, an all-ages jazz competition in Ukraine, featuring musicians from 17 nations. He performed Hancock’s composition “Sonrisa.”

Recorded when he was 11, Alexander’s debut album, “My Favorite Things,” was mind-blowing. His interpretation of John Coltrane’s standard “Giant Steps” earned him a Grammy nomination for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo,” as well as Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

JazzTimes lauded that it was “magnificent not only for his virtuosity but for the maturity and perception he brings.” AllMusic praised his “stunning keyboard virtuosity,” and The New York Times called him “an overnight sensation.”

He next recorded his follow-up album, “Countdown,” at 12-and-a-half. “Tunes by Monk, Coltrane and Strayhorn, are turned this way and that in a bright, muscular style that recalls Hancock, Corea and Petruciani, who had to wait until they were out of short pants to sound like this,” noted The Irish Times. And a U.K. review in The Guardian noted, “this is the performance of an old soul, not just a quick-fingered one.”

The laudatory reviews continued for subsequent albums. The venerable jazz magazine Downbeat, reviewing “Eclipse,” praised: “Joey Alexander’s genius was beyond question at 10; at 14 it only has deepened.”

His live performances have been equally celebrated. At the 58th Grammy Awards, in 2016, he played during both the pre-telecast and the prime-time TV event. That same year, Alexander also performed with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Esperanza Spalding at the White House, as part of a nationally televised International Jazz Day special.

As far as particular career highlights, he said, “One of them is when I played my original song ‘City Lights’ at the 2016 Grammys, and the other was performing for the Obamas at the White House.”

Alexander released his first album of all-original material, “Origin,” on Friday.

“The pandemic took away the livelihood of musicians,” he explained of the album’s inspiration. “Not being able to perform with people and to do what we do was hard and at the same time we knew that we had to keep sharp and ready when live performances came back. I turned to writing music and recorded all of them during the pandemic. Origin comes from the Latin world ‘oriri,’ which means to rise.”

On Thursday, he will be accompanied by Kris Funn on bass and John Davis on drums.

“Our mission,” he concluded, “is always to bring good music, to inspire people and uplift people’s souls.”

The Joey Alexander Trio performs at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Tickets are $40 and $55 (plus applicable fees).

MACC members receive a 10 percent discount. Tickets for children 12 and under are half-price, and a University of Hawaii Maui College student discount is available. Tickets are available at MauiArts.org. For more information, call the MACC box office at (808) 242-SHOW (7469) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

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