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REVIEW: The Prodigy’s Next Act: The Joey Alexander Trio (The Dakota)

The faces of the Joey Alexander Trio, who performed Friday at The Dakota in Minneapolis.

Joey Alexander became an international sensation at 11 years old, playing jazz standards on piano like a seasoned veteran. At 12, performing at the 2016 Grammy’s, he was the youngest ever Grammy nominee. (He would later accumulate two more nominations.) As a certified prodigy, Alexander garnered profiles in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes.

The thing about prodigies, though — whether prodigies at music or mathematics or chess — is that at some point they “age out” of that category.  They become simply another young adult who is very, very good at something, being compared to other comparably accomplished performers in the same field.  The question becomes, how do they follow up their attention-grabbing first act?

For Alexander, one thing that has definitely changed as he adjusts to being a “former prodigy” is that he has moved away from playing standards to writing and playing original compositions.  His sixth (!) album, Origin (which dropped last year with Mack Avenue Records), was his first made up entirely of original works. And last night, at The Dakota, he followed that trend by playing almost entirely original works — some from Origin, and others from earlier albums, Warna (2020) and Eclipse (2018).  The one non-original work was a surprise: Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” .

Alexander was ably supported throughout the set by a tight trio, of Kris Funn on bass and John Davis on drums.  There were songs where Funn held the melody and Alexander’s piano and keyboards worked in the background.  And Davis showed his usual dexterity, moving effortlessly from traditional jazz syncopation to more Afro-Cuban styles. 

Alexander has always been a master of swing technique, with an ability to combine and transition among harmonies which has led others to compare him to Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson.  Still, over the course of the evening, the songs which worked best were often those where Alexander was more spare, almost minimalist, in contrast to the flurries of notes of other works.  This echoes the advice jazz master John Scofield said he received at the start of his career from Miles Davis:  that musicians need to learn to “play with space”. 

Brian Bix