Happy accidents

The success of 11-year-old jazz pianist Joey Alexander is as much due to his talent as some surprising coincidences.

By
March 1, 2015 20:46
4 minute read.
Joey Alexander

Joey Alexander. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It’s the night before the Red Sea Jazz festival and 11-year-old Joey Alexander – the opening act – needs to get back to his Tel Aviv hotel.

The pint-sized Alexander has a wide, toothy grin below his black-framed glasses.

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“I feel great!” he says exuberantly, waiting for his mom to buy souvenirs in the Mahane Yehuda shuk. If he has any nerves about the next day’s performance, it’s not evident.

The Indonesian native has been hailed as a jazz prodigy, picking up the piano at the age of six, mostly by ear. He opened and closed the southern city’s annual jazz festival, having been personally invited to play by artistic director Dubi Lenz.

“I was amazed,” Lenz wrote in an email, of first seeing Alexander play. “I didn’t want anybody to miss his playing.”

The term “jazz prodigy” is not used lightly, and while many in the jazz world are skeptical about such claims, there is nonetheless something special about Alexander that is making people take notice.

“He showed so much maturity in his playing,” Lenz said with regard to looking beyond Alexander’s “wunderkinder” claim.

“Child prodigies have never been part of my purview,” George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, the oldest and most celebrated jazz festival in the world, wrote on his Facebook page after meeting Alexander. “But I didn’t want to make the same mistake as when I passed up the opportunity to see a nine-year-old Harry Connick Jr. perform. Listening to Joey play was an experience I never encountered from a musician his age. There is individuality in his style and maturity in his harmonic development that goes far beyond and is unique in one so young.”

Alexander got his first break in a very millennial way: a YouTube video of him playing caught the attention of Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director and celebrated musician Wynton Marsalis, who set out on a mission all the way to Bali to find the youngster.

Alexander was invited to perform at Lincoln Center in 2014 and shortly afterwards his career took off. He’s graced the stages of the Apollo Theater in Harlem – playing a tribute to Herbie Hancock during the annual gala concert for the jazz foundation of America – played for US president Bill Clinton and been on the international jazz circuit with stops including Denmark, Ukraine and now Israel.

Alexander and his parents, Denny and Fara Sila, are immensely thankful when they look back on the experiences of the past year. All three – deeply religious Christians – attribute Joey’s success to the guiding hand of God.

They especially believe it was divine intervention that introduced them to Daniel Pincus.

At over six feet tall, sporting a full beard and thick, French-style round glasses, Pincus is a curious addition to the petite Sila trio. Touring with them around Jerusalem, Pincus has been involved with Joey’s career since his performance at Lincoln Center.

In that first meeting, where Pincus introduced himself to the Silas only by chance, they all found they had much more in common than just an interest in jazz. Upon finding out the family came from Indonesia, Pincus mentioned a rare and unique Balinese Gamelatron he had in his apartment; a massive conflagration of bells and symbols that is mechanically controlled. On top of that, the four also bonded on a shared Jewish heritage. It turns out Fara’s stock comes from European Jews that fled the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Europe, taking refuge in a British Indonesian colony.

Pincus promptly invited the family to his apartment for a Shabbat dinner, intent on giving them a New York Jewish experience.

When they couldn’t attend – engaged to play for the Indonesian consulate – they agreed to show up the next day for Pincus’s birthday brunch. He had invited a quartet from Juilliard School of Music to entertain the crowd. At the party, Joey was invited up to play the piano with drummer Sammy Miller and trumpeter Alphonso Horne. Today, these are the musicians that play on Joey’s debut album, My Favorite Things.

“They’re my best friends,” Joey says of his band members, his voice inflected with the innocence of his youth.

Pincus is immensely humble regarding the impact he’s had on the lives of the Silas. “If it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else,” he says.

But it was Pincus who introduced the Silas to the immigration lawyer that would help them get an Artist’s Visa to the US. When the visa proved too expensive, it was Pincus who hosted Joey in his apartment, having fundraising concerts to raise money for the cost of the visa.

After the visa went through, with sponsorship from MOTEMA Records in New York, Joey’s career was free to skyrocket. The concert in Israel was an important opportunity to continue his exposure around the world.

For the religious Silas, the chance to visit Jerusalem was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With no diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Israel, the mission to acquire three entry visas required coordination of festival organizers, the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry.

Walking around the Old City, they expressed awe at the Stations of the Cross and wonder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And to top it all off, a ride on the Jerusalem Light Rail brought the Silas from the Old City to the new.

“That was great!” Joey exclaimed stepping off the train, with all the excitement of a young boy.


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