Jazz, Joey Alexander, and a Window on God
If you fell asleep before the end of the Grammys you can be forgiven. Many people do.
But if so, you may have missed—shoe-horned into the annual "Don't forget about me" speech from The Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation President/CEO Neil Portnow, accompanied by accomplished hip-hop star and actor, Common—an original piano piece from 12-year old, Grammy nominated Joey Alexander.
Alexander hails from Bali, Indonesia detouring through Jakarta and now New York City. He may be the first jazz piano savant in history.
It isn't that Alexander is a startingly good musician like any number of prodigy violinists, classical pianists, vocalists, or YouTube guitarists. It's that he's been playing jazz piano since he was six-years-old.
And that he taught himself.
By listening to his dad's CDs.
And that the extraordinary concert below at The Standard in Copenhagen was played when he was but ten.
Not an expert, but a fan
Like most people I cannot play a musical instrument, but I enjoy good music from a variety of genres. I love blues guitarists, and rock drummers, and Hammond B3 organists. Give me SRV Live from the El and I'm a happy man.
But, if blues guitar is a musical interpretation of a soul's sorrow, then jazz piano is an expression of the soul's complexities.
My introduction to jazz piano was through Charlie Brown, specifically, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" from his Grammy winning Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus is a fave.
As noted by others Joey Alexander's ability to play this particular style at his level at his age is not improbable or unlikely. It's impossible.
One YouTube commenter noted the "depth, maturity, facility, and range of chord use and jazz vocabulary" possessed by pre-middle schooler. Nate Chinen, in the NYT:
For a jazz pianist, the mastery entails a staggering breadth of knowledge about harmony, rhythm and orchestration, all converging in an eloquent synthesis.
Joey Alexander has a handle on a good deal of that.
What if it means more?
I am not one given over much to the phrase, "It's just pure God given talent." Time and again it is applied to adults like Steph Curry, Serena Williams or JJ Watt. Each has, with years of practice, risen to the top of their craft. It is easy for skeptics to dismiss such faith claims. The 10,000 hour rule is in effect, don'tcha know?
Yet, when I watch Alexander it seems more is in play than talent. It's far more than practice, practice, practice, since he's only been playing (now) around six years. The men—adults—who accompany him in Copenhagen are masters of the craft, but they are professionals, 30 years his elder.
I'm not the only one senses this disturbance in the force.
Benjamin G, a "rational" person (usually code for atheist or freethinker), wrote in the Copenhagen video comment thread:
Why "very very disturbing"? Because he knows he's witnessing the impossible. The miraculous he sees and hears is forbidden in the worldview he holds.
Transcendence has been defined as "beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience." It's the awareness that this little blue marble in a shoreless ocean of basketballs, beach balls, and wrecking balls, is not all there is. Indeed, the material is not all there is. It's exactly what Benjamin G fears.
When the psalmist looked up through a pollution and particulate-free Palestian sky thousands of years ago he returned to his scribing with,
When I observe Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You set in place, what is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him?
Transcendence may not be a window to the face of the Divine, but it surely provides a view to His yard. Yet, there is little reason to think transendence is limited to "feeling small" when we look through a telescope or watch The Elegant Universe.
Isaiah told the Israelites that God's thoughts are not our thoughts. Not only that, but "His ways are not our ways." God reveals Himself generally through creation, and we are part of that creation. Why, then, should we think He would not reveal Himself generally through inexplicably gifted people?
Surely the glory of God is seen beyond a bush aflame with autumnal color.
Humans, created in the image of God, bear within, though marred and broken, the fingerprints of the Divine. In those moments of transcendence we experience God saying, "I'm here," and it is perfectly rational to believe He exists. To do otherwise is to close the window. That's irrational. And disturbing.