Joey Alexander is into primacies and raw materials. Speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021, the pianist and composer rhapsodized about the Biblical symbolism of salt — and compared it to the role of the blues across musical idioms.
"The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt — that has inspired us in our ups and downs," he said, while promoting his 2021 single "Under the Sun." Two years later, the blues is still on his mind: "The blues is really a center of power."
Bonnie Raitt's epochal ballad "I Can't Make You Love Me" — written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, assisted by Bruce Hornsby on piano, included on 1991's Luck of the Draw — is drenched in the blues.
On his new album, Continuance, out Nov. 3, Alexander forges ahead with original music, like "Why Don't We," "Zealousy" and "Great is Thy Faithfulness." But such is the power of "I Can't Make You Love Me" that it compelled him to take a detour.
"Bonnie Raitt is such an amazing soul; the way she delivers, the way she sang the song is just amazing," Alexander tells GRAMMY.com. "I'm really glad that I found a song that I can build in my repertoire, as this has become something that is part of me."
Below, Alexander shares an exclusive premiere of "I Can't Make You Love Me"; he spoke with GRAMMY.com about Continuance — which features Theo Croker on trumpet on four tracks, and his touring bassist, Kris Funn, and drummer, John Davis, throughout.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What attracted you to Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me"?
I always find myself in a song from a specific period that connects with people. I didn't know a lot about Bonnie Raitt, but when I first heard the song years back, I wanted to have my stamp on it.
Years later, we discovered it again in the process of making the album. Once it was done, I decided to [include] "I Can Make You Love Me" on the album, with my new material — my original works. I'm really glad that I found a song that I can build in my repertoire, as this has become something that is part of me.
I always played popular songs before. I've played "My Favorite Things," "Over the Rainbow," the Beatles. Definitely, this is one of the best songs ever written.
I'm really thankful that this song is included on the album. Even though it is instrumental, as people hear the song, they can hear the lyrics and [apply them to] the times that they lived. I understand it's a love song — in the song, there's some struggles.
As we mature, I think we can learn a lot just by hearing a song. I think It's a special song.
What was the genesis of Continuance? This is a big leap for you, recording with your touring band for the first time.
We've been touring in this group for two to three years, and we played different music. In the process of making the new album, we just started performing the music, really.
I didn't have a lot of time to prepare the music. I got to do a gig in Seattle before there was a time period for me to prepare the music. [Over] four nights, that was the time period that prepared John and Kris to tune into the music and have their personalities, and I wanted to see if this could work.
I'm glad that we could perform the music, and once we got into the studio, we just kind of let it fly, and it was amazing. And of course, one of the songs we performed was Bonnie Raitt. So, it was really nice that we could get ourselves ready. The whole process was really organic.
To you, what binds the compositions on Continuance?
The theme is centered around the places where I lived before I was inspired by New York City. Now, because I'm living in Baltimore, Maryland, I'm inspired by living in Baltimore. I live in this neighborhood called Fells Point. It's a nice area right by the water.
So, the song "Blue" is pretty much inspired by just day to day, seeing the water. The water is kind of a reflection of the sky, just how I see it. But it's more than that. It's also talking about music now.
I like to connect "Blue" as something that has to do with the blues. I won't [call it a] style, but a form of expression, because a lot of people express blues in different genres, of course. We all hear a lot in country, rock 'n' roll, and of course, it's one of the important ingredients in jazz.
It binds, this music. The blues is really a center of power.
Theo Croker is a great match for you. Can you talk about meshing with him, and what he brings to Continuance?
I always had forming a new sound in mind, meaning always finding and bringing new instrumentation. So I've always been a fan of Theo. I love his sound. I always thought about having a trumpet player, and Theo was one of the guys that I had in mind.
Even though I performed the music with a trio, I always envisioned that I wanted to do this as a quartet. I reached out to Theo; I guess we already knew each other through social media, but we actually never met, nor played together.
So, the first time we played together was in the studio; we did have a rehearsal before the recording. For some of my music, I didn't really have sheet music. I think I did for just a few songs. Because my approach is, when I hire a musician, I kind of [encourage him] to just use his imagination and internalize the music.
In this case, with Theo, it was kind of by ear. I tried to help him to really get into the music, because there was only one day to really get the music right, so we didn't have a lot of time or preparation.
But Theo is such a creative person, and definitely one of my favorite trumpet players. Stylistically, he brings the vibe to the table, so it was great to see that in person. It was amazing to see that come to life, because I didn't know exactly how the music would play out. I'm glad it worked out.
How does Continuance reflect your evolution as a composer and interpreter?
This is not something new. because my last album, Origin, consists of all my original works. I would say this is the evolution that continues. This is kind of the album that I felt that I wanted to share. I just wanted to see what I can bring, and how I challenge myself to be a better composer and better leader.
Of course, once in a while I will bring in one song like Bonnie Raitt, or one gospel song, just to put it out there. I always have a little bit of both. But now, I'm focusing on introducing my new music to people. I'm very happy with what I have with this album.
In the past few years, I feel I'm more comfortable in performing my own music and sharing my story in my music. As instrumentalists, we let people imagine what they see in the music and have their stories in my music. So, I won't tell them what the story is about.
As instrumentalists, we can take people to a different place. And so that's kind of my innovation for my music: every time I make an album or perform the music, [I try to conjure] the experience that I want people to get as they listen to the music.
What built your confidence to share your original works, and tell your story?
I think by performing and finding my ground, finding my standing. Because I find that in jazz, we always have to have something new.
And I know people out there, we all are [striving] to bring our own stories in the music, but for me, it's how I connect with the people to music. And it's a funny thing, the Bonnie Raitt song — people just connect to songs like that.
As an instrumentalist, what comes first to me is always great melodies, and great harmonies that come with it. What I need in my music is all those elements together. And so when I find a song like Bonnie Raitt's, I always want to include that piece of music into the table.
I'm thankful for the artists that I have been inspired by. And so I hope that people will be inspired by the music. I hope the people will feel the energy that we have and the love that we have to share with people. That's kind of my hope for people as they check out the album.
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