After jazz pianist Joey Alexander performed a two-night gig at Baltimore’s Keystone Korner in 2021, he decided to stay for a few more days to explore Fells Point.
Later that year, he moved with his parents to the waterfront neighborhood — and made the city his muse, the streets and views of Fells Point brought to life in his new album “Continuance,” released earlier this month.
“Once I moved here, I was inspired to write new music,” said Alexander, the 20-year-old Bali, Indonesia-born composer whose rise to fame in the jazz world took off before he was a teenager.
Before the release of his latest album, Alexander had received three Grammy Award nominations and performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall and the 2014 Jazz at Lincoln Center gala, sharing stages with the likes of the late saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, and many more — all before he was 18.
But after traveling the globe and living in New York, it was Maryland that became his home, offering a new kind of musical motivation.
“It’s a blessing to live in a city like Baltimore,” said Alexander, sitting by the water in Fells Point in early November.
Growing up in Bali, Alexander said it was his parents’ music playing in their home that influenced his own interest in the art form.
“Whatever my dad was playing, I let the music sink in,” he said. “It never entered my mind that I would ever become a musician.”
He started playing a “toy” keyboard that his parents bought for him when he was around 7 years old. When he moved to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, his “special relationship” with jazz grew; Alexander said he found more chances to perform and learned from other musicians during “jam sessions.”
Jazz, which Alexander called an “international language,” has since taken him around the world. When in 2014, at the age of 10, he performed at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center gala, he saw it as a “door of opportunity.” He was still living in Jakarta at the time, but after later being invited back to New York to perform at an Arthur Ashe Learning Center gala, he and his family decided to stay in the U.S.
Since then, he hasn’t shied away from change in other ways, either.
“I found myself needing new scenery,” Alexander recalled of his move from New York to Baltimore in 2021, which he said was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on New York’s music landscape.
“Here I think I find myself [digging] deeper...,” he said. “I find myself focusing more on my music and giving myself time to introspect, and just enjoy the place where I’m living.”
The switch of pace culminated in “Continuance,” which features a rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” alongside five original tracks. As much as it’s about his growth and evolution as a composer, it’s also about the environment he immersed himself in while writing the music.
“Blue,” an invigorating, nearly 7-minute song, came to being thanks to Alexander’s almost daily morning walks along the water in Fells Point.
“Water is very essential to everyday life,” he said. “It helps you think clearly. Looking at the water, you find some sense of peace.”
“Aliceanna,” another song on the album, is named after the east-west street that runs through Fells Point. It unfolds more calmly, shaped by what Alexander said were quiet walks through Baltimore.
And “Why Don’t We,” Alexander said, is about taking a chance, as he did when he moved to New York and again, when he moved to Baltimore.
He recently changed his scenery once more, moving in with family in Rockville, after his lease expired.
“It’s almost like he needs to play. … Just to have all of that in his brain and under his hands, at 20 years old, is insane,” said Kris Funn, who teaches jazz at the Peabody Institute in Mount Vernon and plays the upright bass on “Continuance.”
Drummer John Davis and trumpeter Theo Croker also played on the album recorded in New York in March and released by Mack Avenue Music Group on Nov. 3.
A Baltimore native now living in Capitol Heights, Funn said he first met Alexander about five years ago while playing at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and eventually began touring with him. They’ve now played together more than 100 times, Funn said.
He’d known of Alexander before meeting him, but said that his appreciation for the pianist’s musical talent grew once they started playing together.
“There’s been tons of young jazz phenoms before Joey, but the thing that separated him for me was the way he played … with so much space and maturity,” Funn, 43, said. “You can tell the maturity of a musician more by what they don’t play and when they don’t play.”
When he moved to Baltimore, Alexander said he took an interest in the city’s past musical greats, from singer Billie Holiday, who also once wandered Fells Point, to rapper Tupac Shakur, who attended the Baltimore School for the Arts.
“I see myself being inspired by that piece of history, but [I] also try to find inspiration in the present moment, just being here,” Alexander said.
He’ll perform for two nights at Blues Alley in Washington starting Friday, before playing in Connecticut and New York.
But in Baltimore, where Alexander said he might add tour dates next year, he’s less prone to “distractions.”
“It allows me to be more thankful, actually, for the moments in my life,” he said. “And it allows me to create this new music.”
Listen to Alexander’s latest album “Continuance” here.