11-Year-Old Indonesian Jazz Piano Prodigy Releases Debut CD

Joey Alexander’s favorite things include the Avengers, SpongeBob and Thelonious Monk. He’s a normal 11-year-old kid who just happens to be a jazz piano prodigy from Indonesia and has already impressed such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock.

This week, Alexander released his debut CD, My Favorite Things, making a statement on the opening track with a 10-minute-plus version of John Coltrane’s harmonically challenging “Giant Steps.” He also displays a sensitive touch on ballads such as Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”

Photo: Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP, file
Performing at the 13th annual "A Great Night in Harlem" gala concert at The Apollo Theater in New York.

Not only did he arrange all the tunes, but he also wrote an original composition, “Ma Blues,” inspired by Bobby Timmons’ jazz classic “Moanin’.”

“For me jazz is a calling. I love jazz because it’s about freedom to express yourself and being spontaneous, full of rhythm and full of improvisation,” said the mop-topped pianist, who barely tops 4 1/2 feet and weighs about 80 pounds, in a recent interview.

“Technique is important, but for me first when I play it’s from the heart and feeling the groove.”

Alexander made his U.S. debut in May 2014 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s annual gala where performed a solo version of “‘Round Midnight.”

Marsalis, JALC’s artistic director, brought him over from Indonesia after a friend insisted that he watch a YouTube clip of the 10-year-old performing tunes by Coltrane, Monk and Chick Corea.

“There has never been anyone that you can think of who could play like that at his age,” Marsalis said. “I loved everything about his playing – his rhythm, his confidence, his understanding of the music.”

Alexander, whose parents are Christians, attributes his unique talent as being “a gift from God.”

Born in Bali, Josiah Alexander Sila began playing piano at the age of 6 when his father, an amateur pianist and guitarist, brought home a mini electric keyboard. Alexander immediately began picking out the melody of Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” and other standards by ear from listening to his father’s jazz collection.

His father gave him some lessons, and he soon started jamming with local musicians. His parents gave up their adventure tour business and moved to Jakarta so he could play with Indonesia’s top jazz musicians.

At age 8, Alexander had the opportunity to play for his hero, Hancock, at a UNESCO event in Jakarta. Alexander says Hancock’s encouragement led him “to dedicate” himself to jazz.

His father, Denny Sila, said he never intended for his son to pursue a jazz career, but changed his mind after Alexander topped a field of more than 40 professional musicians to win the 2013 Master-Jam Fest competition for jazz improvisers in Ukraine.

In October, Alexander went into a studio for the first time to record My Favorite Things. He recently obtained an O-1 visa for “individuals with extraordinary ability” enabling him to stay with his family in New York to pursue his jazz dream.

“I want to develop by practicing and playing, and challenging myself to get better every day,” said Alexander.

His upcoming plans include performances at the prestigious Montreal and Newport jazz festivals.

Newport producer George Wein says he’s always been reluctant to book so-called child prodigies, but he made an exception after Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, tennis legend Arthur Ashe’s widow, brought Alexander over to his Manhattan apartment to play for him.

“The thing that differs from most young players is the maturity of his harmonic approach,” said Wein. “His playing is very contemporary but he also has a sense of the history of the music.”