It was a Thelonious Monk composition — the elegant and wistful ballad "'Round Midnight" — that first made Joey Alexander a topic of conversation.
Specifically, it was his performance of the song at a 2014 Jazz at Lincoln Center gala — where his startling poise at the piano earned a standing ovation in the hall, rapturous reviews in the jazz press, and the attention of supporters who helped his family move to New York City from Bali, Indonesia, and hooked him up with a record deal. Joey was 10 at the time.
He's 14 now, and still genuflecting in Monk's direction: his third album for Motéma — Joey.Monk.Live! — will be released digitally on Friday. Recorded in June in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, it's a full concert of Monk's music, performed with a first-rate trio featuring Scott Colley on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. (Joey informally announced the album last week, during a surprise visit with Gary Walker on Morning Jazz at WBGO.)
Alexander has an obvious affinity with Monk's music, embracing the buoyancy and angularity that have long been among its trademarks. His more ambitious digressions can feel forced, but he has an intuitive feeling for melody, and always finds his way back. It surely helps that in Colley and Jones he has a rhythm team equally capable of swinging tough, as they do on "Rhythm-a-Ning," or laying back, as on "Ugly Beauty."
This exclusive video of "Evidence" captures the album's spirit well, the trio setting out at an easygoing trot, with the tune's jagged syncopations folded into a sunny arrangement. It feels almost trivializing to call Alexander a playful improviser, but it's an apt description of the energy he exudes here, especially in the chorus that begins just before the three-minute mark.
Joey.Monk.Live! is one of a handful of gestures timed to coincide with Thelonious Monk's centennial, which you'll be hearing more about soon. Alexander will revisit these tunes with a different trio, featuring Charnett Moffett on bass and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums, at the Jazz Standard in New York on Monk's birthday, Oct. 10.