Jazz Greats Young and Old

October 15, 2016 Updated: October 15, 2016

Classical music has produced a number of child prodigies, but they are rare in jazz. Pianist Joey Alexander is one of the few who come to mind. Wynton Marsalis has said of him, “There has never been anyone that you can think of who could play like that at his age. I love everything about his playing–his rhythm, his confidence, his understanding of the music.”

Surprisingly, Alexander wasn’t born in the United States, but on the distant island of Bali in Indonesia. At age 8, he played solo piano before Herbie Hancock, who was impressed and encouraged the youngster. The following year, Alexander won the grand prize at the first Master-Jam Fest competition in the Ukraine. By age 10, he was appearing at jazz festivals and in 2014, Wynton Marsalis invited him to appear at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Alexander’s first album, “My Favorite Things,” was nominated for two Grammy Awards, making him the youngest artist ever to achieve this distinction in the jazz category.

Now 13 years, old he has just released his second album “Countdown” (on the enterprising independent label Motéma Music) and it shows the development of his art.

First of all, he is emerging as a talented composer with three entrancing originals: “City Lights,” “Sunday Waltz,” and “Soul Dreamer.” The first is a Latinate salute to the city of New York, where Alexander now lives. The title suggests that he is a fan of Charlie Chaplin, which is also indicated by the inclusion on the CD of the comic film genius’s most famous song, “Smile.” This is imaginatively handled by mixing in “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

The choice of material reflects Alexander’s influences, such as the jumpy “Criss Cross” by Thelonious Monk, one of his favorite composers. Billy Strayhorn’s impressionistic “Chelsea Bridge” also reveals the pianist’s thoughtful approach to these familiar works.  He never falls into the trap of simply imitating the original recordings.

As on his first album, there is a Coltrane tune, here the title track, “Countdown.”  “For Wee Folks” is from Wynton Marsalis’s album “Black Codes (From the Underground).” Herbie Hancock’s moody “Maiden Voyage” features the dynamic Chris Potter on soprano saxophone.  The other sidemen are drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. and alternating bass players Larry Grenadier and Dan Chmielinski. 

Joey Alexander is already a polished jazz performer. His further growth as a musician will be eagerly followed by jazz aficionados.

Jimmy Heath

Jimmy Heath. (Joe Martinez)
Jimmy Heath. (Joe Martinez)

At the other end of the age spectrum is Jimmy Heath. On Friday, Oct. 21–Oct. 22, Jazz at Lincoln Center will hold four concerts in the Appel Room titled “Jimmy Heath: Life of a Legend” to celebrate the saxophonist/bandleader/composer’s 90th birthday.

The NEA Jazz Master comes from one of jazz’s most distinguished families. His brothers are drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath (who will perform at the concert) and the late bass player Percy Heath. They used to perform together as the Heath Brothers.

Heath has released over 100 albums and his compositions have been recorded by many major jazz artists, from Miles Davis to Ray Charles. His originals include “C.T.A.,” “Gemini,” “Gingerbread Boy” and “For Minors Only.”

At the concert, Heath will perform original pieces for both his big band and a small group featuring the excellent vocalist Roberta Gambarini (whom I have seen him perform with at the Blue Note Club). Among the other musicians appearing will be Jon Faddis, Stanley Cowell, and Melissa Aldana.   

The last time I saw Heath playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, he led a performance of a piece he wrote to celebrate the birthday of his friend James Moody, who was a member of the band that night.

(Frank Stewart)
(Frank Stewart)

The great saxophonist James Moody has since died but is being honored with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s upcoming 5th Annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival (http://www.njpac.org/buy-tickets/moodyjazz), featuring Omara Portuondo (Oct. 15), Wynton Marsalis, Angélique Kidjo, Patti Austin, and Catherine Russell (Nov. 1), Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, the Yellowjackets, and David Sanborn (Nov. 17); Christian McBride, Sharon Jones, and Bettye LaVette (Nov. 18), and Dianne Reeves and Sheila Jordan with McBride (Nov. 19) plus many others, including free concerts.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.