To all outside appearances, Joey Alexander comes across as the typical 16-year-old — a little shy, fairly gangly, nervous when speaking to a crowd. English is the Indonesian native's second language, so he's working on that, too.
His first language is piano, particularly jazz piano. He is ridiculously fluent.
In a Jefferson Center Jazz Series set that went a few minutes shy of 90 on Friday, Alexander and his trio, also ridiculously fluent in the language, brought a range of emotions, dynamic precision and instrumental intensity to an appreciative crowd of 348 in the venue's Shaftman Performance Hall.
Any jazz man worth his salt has to master the standards. Alexander opened with one of the best known, "All The Things You Are," starting it with a mysteriously gorgeous solo intro. Soon, his band mates — drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Kris Funn — joined in for the timeless number's haunting swing. Alexander, a generous leader, gave each man a couple of choruses to solo. Funn's liquid upright bass lines hinted at what he would be up to the rest of the night. Scott, a bandleader in his own right, implied the melody while moving like quicksilver around the kit.
In between their solos, Alexander effortlessly developed a break that displayed sophisticated syncopation, deep harmonies and open-eared interplay.
Alexander isn't simply churning up favorites from the Real Book. He is a composer with two Grammy Award-nominated albums to his credit. "Bali," from his 2018 release, "Eclipse," was a musical ode to his birthplace. The pianist moved from a straight, eighth-note, lightly tropical-leaning intro into a bossa nova groove with a melody that evoked thoughts of Pat Metheny. Alexander's solo featured lots of left hand/right hand harmony chops and a steadily building intensity.
He couldn't resist the urge to stand up during a few of his solos, including a fiery cover of saxophonist Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge." On another "Eclipse" cut, the late-1800s gospel hymn "Draw Me Nearer," he showed restraint uncommon for someone his age, making the hall feel like a jazz church.
Alexander recently moved into the next phase of his career, signing with the storied Verve label. A new album, 'Warna," is due Jan. 31, 2020, and he previewed several songs from it — "Inner Urge," "Downtime" and the title track. "Downtime" had a smooth jazz element to it, and it gave Funn room to play a slinky and humorous solo that mixed fast single notes with chords.
The band closed its set with "Warna." Scott set the pace with an opening drum solo that featured a battery of unique sounds and stupendous control of phrasing across all four limbs. He transitioned into a Latin feel that Alexander worked over until he was again up off the stool, burning, then leading the trio into a volume drop whose downward swell met the audience's upward swell of applause.
The crowd stood in response as the trio walked off stage. Alexander and his group encored with the original and super catchy "Sunday Waltz," keeping the show entertaining to the end and earning another standing "O."
This was no novelty, no fluke. The 16-year-old was absolutely a peer with his older band mates, showing phrasing and listening skills that most young — and older — jazzers can only fantasize. What the audience saw on Friday felt like an early stage of what should be a long and constantly interesting career.