When Joey Alexander was 8 years old, the Balinese-born, self-taught pianist who learned jazz by listening to his dad’s record collection played for jazz legend Herbie Hancock while Hancock was visiting Indonesia.
Alexander says that encounter eight years ago was one of the most important moments in his musical career.
“The only thing he told me is keep playing this music,” Alexander said. “Never stop. Those words mean a lot to me to this day.”
Since moving to the U.S., Alexander has clearly followed Hancock’s advice. He’s released 5 albums, been nominated for three Grammys, been profiled on 60 Minutes and has played top venues from the Newport Jazz Festival to a sold-out Carnegie Hall to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.
No wonder his new album “Warna” contains an original tune called “Downtime,” because it sounds like Alexander could use some. As a composer, he says he’s constantly striving to find his own voice.
“That’s the hard part, what makes it you,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to get when I compose something. I try to have people feel what I feel. They wake up in the morning or they’re driving to work, I want them to dance too… hear my music.”
Inspiration comes from anywhere, Alexander says. He wrote his tune “Lonely Streets” after a long road trip home.
“As I was traveling back from upstate New York to New York City, we passed by some small towns, almost forgotten buildings,” he said. “And that image stuck with me. I just thought of composing something out of that.”
There’s another kind of composing Alexander enjoys: spontaneous or “free form” composition. That’s how bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and Alexander collectively cooked up the track “Eclipse” at a recording session during the solar eclipse of 2017.
“After seeing the eclipse we just decided to compose something that has no form,” Alexander said. “Just being present in the moment. You don’t know which direction you’re going because it’s free form. To have the will to make something meaningful, that to me can become a composition.”
Whether it’s experimental or totally tuneful, Alexander’s playing nearly always has a soulful gospel feeling to it.
“It’s still a central part of my music because I know that it is God’s given gift,” he said. “And we serve others through our music.”
The other “g” word that describes Joey’s music is its ever-present, infectious groove.
“Channeling that groove, I want to continue to do that and to have people feel that groove,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
You can catch Alexander at the Mondavi Center in Davis tonight, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m., where he’ll perform music from his just-released album “Warna.”