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Joey Alexander: Countdown

Doug Collette By

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Like most such facile categorizing, 'child prodigy' usually ends up being a dead end rather than a means to explore the subject at hand. In the case of Joey Alexander, it's a disservice precisely because it's so restrictive: if he proves anything on his second album, it is that he will not be confined.

Quite the contrary, the thirteen year-old pianist and composer challenges himself on multiple fronts on Countdown. He not only chooses to play with other musicians, including bassist Larry Grenadier (Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau) and saxophonist Chris Potter (Dave Douglas, Dave Holland), thereby allowing himself to assimilate technique, but he also takes the risk of involving both of them on an extended foray into Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage;" their detailed exploration of both the melody and rhythm reveals why it's so durable a composition and why the threesome are so simpatico.

The choice of the famous tune also represents the courage Alexander displays in his selection of cover material juxtaposed with his own evocative originals like "Soul Dreamer." John Coltrane's "Countdown" is a somewhat lesser known piece of the late great hornman's (his "My Favorite Things" served as the title of this artist's debut), while, in contrast, "Criss Cross" is one of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk's most famous tunes. Alexander and company approach both numbers with relish and no small amount of abandon.

In fact, the musicians leave self-consciousness so far behind, for a deep engagement in those numbers and their own playing, the combined resonance is as tangible as the audio presence producer Jason Olaine preserves equally vivid in detail and panorama. Ever-present drummer Ulysses Owen Jr.'s fleet but firm rhythms accentuate the various trios rumble and roar, especially when they get going on the album's opener, "City Lights," and the interaction on Wynton Marsalis'" "For Wee Folks" is lighting-fast and nimble to boot.

But the speed there isn't just for its own sake or for the players to show off how well they play, It's indicative not only of the depth of inspiration this precocious pianist/composer displays, but also how infectious is his enthusiasm. Joey's command of the keys lends as much airy atmosphere to his own "Sunday Waltz" as the deeper tones he injects into Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge." Based on the cumulative effective of the nine tracks on the Countdown compact disc (there is an extra one, Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," available via I-Tunes), the range of feeling is a direct reflection of Alexander's learned and innate knowledge of his roots.

Not surprisingly, though, the moments he makes the deepest impression(s) are those within Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." Here the young man evinces an emotional depth far beyond his years and therein lies the source of his nascent genius.

Track Listing: City Lights; Sunday Waltz; Countdown; Smile; Maiden Voyage; Criss Cross; Chelsea Bridge; For Wee Folks; Soul Dreamer.

Personnel: Joey Alexander: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass (3-6, 8, 9); Dan Chmielinski: bass (1,2,7); Ulysses Owens, Jr.: drums; Chris Potter: soprano saxophone (5).

Title: Countdown | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Motema Music


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