Photo: RUBA Creative
Joey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun"
Unlike most condiments, salt figures heavily in the Bible. It symbolizes friendship. It means preservation. Lot's wife became a pillar of it. Jesus' salt illustration on the Mount is now an idiom. "Let your words be seasoned with salt," Paul said in Colossians, essentially meaning "Speak gracefully and perceptively." While only 17, Joey Alexander is aware of salt's religious and historical connotations—and his expressions would make the Apostle proud.
"I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression," the thrice-GRAMMY-nominated pianist tells GRAMMY.com about his single "SALT," which dropped in mid-March. "The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe."
And what of his latest tune, "Under The Sun"? Isn't that title from Ecclesiastes? "Yeah!" Alexander replies, flashing a grin. "Oh, man! You know your stuff!"
"Under The Sun" marks the second single Alexander is releasing this spring via Verve Records and premieres above exclusively via GRAMMY.com. ("Summer Rising" will conclude the trilogy on May 28.) The tune, which Alexander wrote after the murder of George Floyd ignited protests in New York City, sounds appropriately golden-hued and ascendant. Therein, he wrote about the universal human family—one bound by forces racial disharmony can't destroy.
Alexander opened up to GRAMMY.com over Zoom about the significance of salt, the spiritual intent of his music and this radiant new tune with bassist Daniel Winshall and drummer Tyson D. Jackson.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I dig your tune "SALT." You've mentioned the title is symbolic of the blues.
It can mean different things to different people. Even what we eat. The word "salad," during Roman times, was derived from the word "salt" for salted vegetables. I guess you might have heard that before.
Oh, really! Yeah, man. It's kind of interesting to really look at what we eat. And it's in music as well. Blues is such an essential part of jazz and in other genres of music. You find it in so many genres of music. To me, most of them lead back to the blues. And of course, there are different interpretations of playing the blues. So, I have my interpretation in my composition "SALT."
Gilad Hekselman really added some fantastic color on the guitar to the track. To have a sense of completeness, I just had to have Gilad perform on the song. He's truly one of the best. His projection of the guitar is remarkable. Also, how he kind of resounds the rock element is very cool. I never had that element before, until this song came out.
Salt was also inspired by words from the Book of Matthew that we are the salt of the earth. It's a [invitation] to do good to others. I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression. The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe.
Right. I feel like songs based on blues forms are preserved. They tend to weather fads and trends.
But in this song, I wanted to create a sense of space in the way it is collective. I was trying to create room for other musicians to jump in and do their thing [chuckles], whatever that is. To share their talent and be themselves.
Also, I wanted to have really carefully written songs. "SALT" has that strong melody, which I was striving for. I was glad that Jaleel and Gilad played in unison and sounded so strong. When I heard it back, I was like "Wow." I never would have imagined that the song would sound that way; it was indescribable.
When you first listened to it, what came to your mind? I'm curious.
Something craggy and historical. Something that's been around for a long time. Like I'm looking at an old village church or a cave or something.
That's great, man. You use that as your tool—your imagination. I like that. I like to hear from other people who have their own perspectives. As much as I could share with you about what I felt writing the song, it's always great to hear other peoples' thoughts. It's really important to me.
As a composer, it's all about strengthening the melody and rhythm. When the band comes in, it's very ... not elusive, but it's very simple. The rhythm kind of sticks to you, right, when you hear it? I think Gilad also added some of the notes to the vamp, which was wonderful. He put that in place. Some songs I like to start with a vamp. Whenever I feel like it comes to my head, I play it. It happens in the moment sometimes.
Regarding the spiritual content of the song, it seems like you're pretty open about your beliefs.
Of course, I have things that I believe in. We all have things that we hold on to. Do you know what I'm saying? Whether it's music or faith. Of course, my music is all there in faith and holding on to the things that we believe.
I'm always about being thankful and always thanking God for all the things that happen in my life. That's the main point to me. To show love and empathy to people around me. My friends and I always pray before we start a performance, just to remember why we're there. To be a vessel to others.
Even though things aren't going the way you expect them to be, there are moments where you need to hold your head up, and along the way, you find hope. That's what the song is about: finding life and togetherness. I hope people feel that. This is my message about "SALT."
It's interesting the way you came up in your early teens. Usually, jazz musicians go through the whole curriculum and when success strikes, it's a lot later in life.
Yeah. It just so happened that I started earlier than some other musicians. You might have known some musicians who start early, in their teens, too. I'm not unique, I'm sure. Some musicians started just as early as me.
True, but you had a public profile, too.
I guess many musicians haven't experienced that at a young age. Well, I can say I'm thankful for all the things that have happened to me. Even when I got my first nomination, which was totally out of the blue, I wouldn't have thought that I would have my first album be in that category. I was nominated for Best Instrumental Album, and nonetheless, Best Improvised Jazz Solo.
Do you remember who else was in the running when you were nominated?
Were you able to meet some of those older masters?
No, I only met Herbie Hancock at the GRAMMYs.
Nice. What was your impression of the man?
It was great meeting Herbie. He didn't say too much, I was eight at that time. He was like, "You really want to be here?" He said something like that and I said "I'm playing 'Watermelon Man.'" He thought I could play and he said, "Keep doing it" and "Don't stop."
Yeah, it was pretty inspiring just to have those words come from someone who's been in the music world for a long time.
What can you share about "Under the Sun"?
It has ties to the times that we live in. The pandemic really hit us badly as musicians, and then I saw people marching on the streets where I live in Union Square in New York City. A lot of things have happened during the time I wrote this piece. But I think the positive side is that people of all colors stood up.
The title is from Ecclesiastes, yeah?
Yeah. Oh, man! You know your stuff. That is one of the inspirations. Actually, I wrote this during summer 2020 after witnessing the protests across the country. I also was inspired by Bruce Lee's interview when he was asked, "What do you think of yourself?" His only answer was, "I like to think of myself as a human being." Under the sky, we are all one family. It just happens that we are all different and we have to accept our differences. And this is how this song comes in.
What do you have up your sleeve for when things return to semi-normal?
As of now, I have one show coming up in Cape May, which is a festival called Exit Zero Jazz Festival and one in June at Saratoga Jazz Festival. I'm always praying and looking forward to being back traveling with my friends.
For now, I'm composing music, because it's what I love. I'm filling in the days with writing new works, trying to keep active. I'm thankful that I'm here with my family in New York City enjoying the weather. "Summer Rising" is my next single and that is about continuing to grow and awakening.