I entered Hatch Hall -- where keyboard wunderkind Joey Alexander was about to play -- with a lot of questions. Can a young Indonesian boy really know the American idiom of jazz? Can any 11-year-old, without significant life experience, know the meaning of what he's playing? And could reincarnation be real; could it be that Art Tatum has come back as an 11-year-old Indonesian boy? I had seen the videos and there was no doubt that this kid was a phenomenon.
He did not disappoint. In his grey suit (minus tie) he looked like a miniature musician. He sat down on the piano bench, cranked way up, looked at the keyboard, and launched into a tune that would be a challenge for any pianist: Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy." He not only nailed it, he did it with great stylistic flair.
Alexander spoke like the child that he is, a bit awkward in front of all of the adults. But every time he sat down to play, he was simply brilliant. Yes, there were songs like "My One and Only Love" that seemed a bit premature (unless teddy bears count) but he played them wonderfully.
What's most startling about Alexander is his frame of reference. He's not entering jazz with simple blues progressions; he's entering in the heavyweight category with Monk and John Coltrane. One of the set's stunners was his rendition of "My Favorite Things." He clearly hadn't based it on the soundtrack from "The Sound of Music." This was the Coltrane version. And his encore, a Chick Corea tune, proved he could go Latin when he wanted to.
His technique was beyond dazzling. Sometimes his left hand was keeping up a complex bass pattern while his right hand was fluttering impressionistically over the keys so fast it looked like a hummingbird's wings. His dynamics were also excellent; he knew when to be subtle and when to build to a crescendo.
Hatch Hall couldn't fit all the people who wanted to hear Alexander. The good news is he'll be playing Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre at 440 East Avenue. Don't miss it.
I had something to compare Alexander's performance to because I had just come from Kilbourn Hall where pianist Benny Green and his trio played. Green is another dazzling pianist with jaw-dropping technique. He put it to work playing great tunes by Horace Silver, Cedar Walton, and others. My favorite was "He Has Gone," a beautiful ballad by Oscar Peterson.
Benny Green Trio -- Jazz Fest 2015
Green and his excellent trio (bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green) all wore suits and played in a fairly formal manner. But Green really stretches out at the keyboard, sometimes leaning off the bench like a jazz version of Jerry Lee Lewis, and his bunched up suit somehow emphasized that wild side.
Benny Green will perform solo on Sunday, June 21, in Hatch Recital Hall. 5:45 and 7:45 p.m.
I ended the night at Christ Church with another formidable pianist, Andrew McCormack. He brought his superb trio (Peter Slavov, bass, and Colin Stranahan, drums), which was enhanced by a great saxophonist whose name I waited for until the end, but did not catch.
McCormack, a glistening pianist when he's in the upper register (which is a lot), and the saxophonist (a Coltrane disciple) played off each other nicely in a set of strong original compositions. But the band was best when it was not going full tilt. The churches' acoustics are too good and when a band really gets going, the sound, unfortunately, gets muddled.
Sunday evening I'll start with one of the festival's most popular artists. Vocalist Tessa Souter will make her fifth festival appearance at the XRIJF, but her first at Kilbourn Hall. I'm not sure what to expect from Nils Berg Cinemascope at the Lutheran Church, and that's what makes me want to go. I'll end the night with another festival favorite: the great one-man band, Raul Midon at Xerox Auditorium.