Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Beauty of Suffering


I have been obsessed with an 11-year old. Ever since I saw a clip of Joey Alexander on Youtube, my world has been delightfully disturbed. Any notions of child development and human potential have been turned inside out and upside down. Check it out yourself: this young man, born in Bali, growing up in Indonesia, has absorbed more of the jazz idiom in the short five years he’s been playing piano than I have in 55 years. Note: Born in Bali, a supremely musical culture, but far away from the language of jazz. Little Joey apparently heard some jazz recordings at six and started to figure them out on the piano. It boggles the mind.

Of course, child prodigies and savants have long been with us, but what astounds me about him is his quick absorption of a complex harmonic vocabulary, his ability to listen and respond in the trio setting, his sensitive touch and use of space. Most young virtuosos set out to dazzle us with technique and speed, but he plays ballads with a delicacy far, far beyond his years. He’s redefining the notion of an “old soul” and makes you believe in reincarnation, as if Art Tatum came back again to continue his work. And the fact that he grew up in a culture far away from the African-American experience and jazz culture makes it yet more astounding. As I said, it boggles the mind.

I alerted my fellow Pentatonic band members and was astounded when Micah McClain, our group’s drummer.  said, “Yeah, he’s good, but truth be told, I’d rather hear you play.” I have pretty low self-esteem when it comes to jazz piano playing and for many good reasons which I could elaborate endlessly, so it was a double shock to hear his reaction. When I asked him to explain, he wrote:

“ Little guy seems to be feeling what he is playing deeply. That's huge. But the difference is pain. I like a little (or a lot) of suffering in my music - love and loss and crushing blows, having things for long enough so it matters whether or not you lose them. It feels ridiculous to qualify his playing in any way because it is profoundly beautiful and inspiring. But certain things only come with suffering.  And he may be channeling all of that through the collective unconscious or a past incarnation, but there's no substitute for having your body ravaged by this life. It's a gift that nature provides us and I'm grateful for each devastation.”

Wow. No need for me to add any more to this eloquence except this: A lot of music is practice and technique and understanding and playing the right notes at the right time in the right way and part of my low self-esteem is knowing that I haven’t put in the right kind of time long enough and began with a shaky musical foundation that can haunt me every time I sit down. But I have occasionally moved people to tears in my playing and felt the grace of saying exactly what I feel and feeling it deep enough that it longs to be said. My body is testimony to the ravages of time (especially with this shingles on my face!) and I certainly have loved my share of things for a long, long time and grieve their loss or impending loss. When I can shut down that voice that whines, “Why don’t you sound like_____?” and let the voice that can speak that suffering and joy and emerge, sometimes beautiful things happen. So music is larger than the notes, it's the life behind them that counts. 

Anyway, thanks Micah, and all of you, do check out Joey Alexander. And then come to my next concert too. 

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