Jazz piano has been part of my life since the year dot; my father claimed that he was the accompanist for Beatrice Lillie, though I’ve no way of knowing whether that was when she entertained troops in WWII. However, his record collection included the likes of Fats Waller on 78s and as the years progressed I got to appreciate the likes of Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner.
“I can assure you that most of the good jazz I’ve heard during that period has been the stuff I carried out here with me on tape and CD.
“There really aren’t that many [local musicians] playing what I’d call jazz. Pianist Bubi Chen is one; trombonist Benny Likumahuwa (also a fine bassist) is another. But most young local musicians are enamored with electronic keyboard washes and effects-heavy guitar playing, with little interest in acoustic music (they term it “mainstream”) these days.
“I’m not expecting to see any substantial growth of interest in jazz here during the next couple of decades.”
That’s how I saw it at the time, but thankfully matters are different now, even if major gigs are still dependent on sponsorship from foreign cultural institutes such as Goethe Haus, and oligarchs who own media outlets, or tobacco companies.
As part of the ongoing Serambi series of jazz gigs curated by Riza at Goethe Haus, last Thursday night1, friend and I went along to see 10 year old wunderkid jazz pianist Josiah Alexander Sila, to give him his full name. Joey Alexander wasn’t even a twinkle in his parent’s eyes when Blair wrote the above.
Thanks to the regular feed from Jazzuality, I’d read the following: He was still 6 years old when his parents bought him a mini keyboard. To their surprise, out of nowhere Joey played a melody line of Thelonious Monk’s masterpiece, “Well You Needn’t”. Looking at this amazing gift from Above, his parents directly gave him piano lessons. And he miraculously chewed it all up. Just a year or so, he could already play jazz renditions and hatched faster than we ever dare to predict.
Friend and I arrived in plenty of time, thinking that the wunderkid would start punctually because his bedtime is earlier than ours. The auditorium was packed, quite unlike the last time we were at Goethe Haus, and we felt lucky to grab a couple of seats at the very back of the balcony. There were camera crews and cell phones a-plenty around us. We realised from the number of family groups that this wasn’t a typical jazz audience. The curiosity factor of witnessing a prodigy perform plus, perhaps for some, an element of reflected glory had created a frisson of expectation.
On the stage below was a grand piano to the left, and a set of drums to the right. After a thankfully brief introduction, the group, lead by little Joey, entered from backstage right and took their places. Donny Sundjoyo, of Riza’s 3scape, stood in the centre behind his double bass and a music stand, while Elfa Zulham, Donny’s bandmate in The Jongens Quartet, sat behind his drums.
The first number, as in the next two, started with Joey vamping away, possibly on a Thelonius Monk tune. I couldn’t tell, nor could I care, because the sheer inventiveness of his playing swept me away with barely a glance at the raised foot rests which enabled him to use the pedals. Then the bass and drums started and, hey, it was bebop.
The second number got me mentally comparing Joey’s improvisational skills to Keith Jarrett, whose solos are long inventive muses which come from …? But where does a kid get it from? Good jazz is a matter of soul, of feeling the moment. Is it played for oneself and friends, or for an audience? The latter may be commercially better, but the best jazz is when audiences are swept away, not with recognition – oh, I’ve got the CD – but with the groove of unexplored paths. Good jazz is the unexpected, the interplay – the calls and responses or the fellowship of like minds in tune with each other, and the audience.
How can a kid, a shy kid, have such poise? It must have helped that he’s had master lessons with and been mentored by piano maestro, Indra Lesmana, himself a former 10 year old prodigy. I figured that mentoring was also the role being played on stage by Donny Sundjoyo, who began to quietly underpin the unnamed number, and to a lesser degree by Elfa Zulham, whose drumming was, to put it politely, fussy.
So fussy in fact, that both friend and I found it intrusive. Mind you, his solo did produce some unwarranted applause. And it was for this that both of us found ourselves wishing that he wasn’t there. He spoiled our mood; besides, the understated double bass would have been enough.
Before the third piece, young Joey had his mike adjusted down to his height and somewhat nervously, thanked us for coming, named his playing partners and then said that they’d play some standards. Again, there was his inventive, powerful even, vamping to start and it took a while before Amazing Grace was recognisable, and that made it better. It was the “groove of unexplored paths” I mentioned above.
I scrawled a note in the darkness: I could listen to him for hours – but can’t – oh, those drums!
Friend and I took our leave, certain that we’d seen enough to know that the future of jazz was assured in that hall that night. I hope that Joey Sila stays level-headed; perhaps he will follow in the footsteps as Sri Hanugra2and study abroad. (Sri is another Indra Lesmana alumnus, and mentored by Riza Arshad, who I saw with his Brag Pack [video from gig] last year, alongside MoonJune impresario Leonardo Pavkovic, Riza, Agam Hamzah and a host of other jazz scene luminaries at Indra Lesmana’s Red & White Lounge.)
Meanwhile, watch Joey in this video filmed earlier this year with a much more sympathetic support team, one prepared to play with him, in the sense of having fun while making some great music.
1That evening, Riza was on his way to the airport to catch a flight which would take him and the rest of simakDialog to New York for a few gigs. Next Friday (6th September), Riza, Tohpati and Leonardo Pavkovic will be guests on Jerry Gordon’s jazz radio show Serenade To Cuckoo broadcast on WPRB 103.3FM. You can listen to a free webcast from 10pm to 1am WIB.
2Listen to embedded tracks.
3The Jazzuality review of the gig.
4Finally, one of my pleasures at local jazz gigs is the opportunity to buy CDs. I’ve now added Tomorrow People Ensemble, another group who seldom play here because members are studying music abroad. In this video they are playing three tracks from the album at what appears to be an improvised – “let’s play it here” – gig.