Pianist/composer Randy Weston, upon accepting his award at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem annual benefit concert Wednesday at Hunter College, said, “I only have two words: Joey Alexander.” It was the jazz immortal’s way of extending his praise to Alexander’s emerging reputation and to his earlier performance.
Alexander, the child prodigy from Bali who will turn 14, June 25, thrilled the crowd with his version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” His solo was invested with all the wide-ranging influences that have come to typify his performances. A full catalogue of jazz history seems to be immediately at his fingertips, particularly the piano styles of Scott Joplin, Art Tatum, Monk and numerous bebop giants.
Weston may have recognized some of his own improvisations when Alexander ventured into a heavy ostinato beat, brilliantly embellished by an array of sparkling chromatics.
In a way, for each of the evening’s honorees, including Arthur Barnes, a former chair of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem and member of the Board of Governors for the Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at New School University, and Jazzmobile with CEO Robin Bell-Stevens accepting the award, there was a musician.
Vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and her accompanist, pianist Aaron Diehl, presented a veritable album of music, with Salvant offering the full repertoire of songs, each delivered to reflect an element of her engaging personality.
It was hard not to think of the late Betty Carter when the duo opened with “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Carter had a unique way of reframing a refrain, of making surprising rhythmic changes, without losing the essence of the melody. Salvant is similarly disposed and she, too, can linger unexpectedly on a note and revamp a melody, finding a fresh way to blend with Diehl’s harmonic lead.
The great vaudevillian Bert Williams may have taken a moment to recognize his signature song “Nobody.” Salvant and Diehl gave it a theatrical treatment, with the pauses from the singer emphasizing the lyrics, especially on the words “no time” at the tune’s close. Salvant held the notes just long enough to indicate a certain indignation, a lyrical sarcasm that wasn’t missed by the appreciative audience.
With a close listen to Salvant it’s possible to hear vestiges of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and, with great exposition, Billie Holiday’s sophisticated, sometimes world-weary insinuations. Her rendition of Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” was done with a semi-operatic flourish that was in contrast to her more torchy interpretation of the Rodgers and Hart evergreen “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
The audience had no idea what time it was, nor did it matter when you have a singer who won first prize in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010, giving her Monk link to Alexander. She and Diehl, whose lush voicings or Broadway phrasings enhanced each song, could have gone on for another hour without an interruption from a totally engrossed auditorium of listeners.
But she finally brought the concert to a close, allowing her fans and the roster of dignitaries to exit, including Lloyd Williams of the Greater Chamber of Commerce; former Rep. Charles Rangel, who presented the award to Barnes; Voza Rivers, who presented the award to Bell-Stevens; Timothy Porter, chair of the NJMH; Loren Schoenberg, NJMH founding director and senior scholar; and Ken Knuckles, CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.
Rhonda Hamilton, the mistress of ceremony, moved things along with the same smooth and effortless manner of an Alexander solo or a Salvant lyric.