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This fifth release by Joey Alexander, the 16-year-old Balinese phenom, once again showcases the young pianist’s prodigious technical skills, and it’s not without satisfying moments throughout. On Warna’s 12 cuts, 10 of which are original, Alexander is warmly supported by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Kendrick Scott. Percussionist Luisito Quintero joins the group for three numbers and works seamlessly with Scott. Two cuts feature Anne Drummond on flute, and her contribution on “We Here” lends considerable charm to the tune.
At this point in his life, Alexander has greater success getting into a composition than getting out of one. He knows how to set a groove and how to create ambiance. He listens deeply and responds compassionately to his fellow bandmates. His sense of fearlessness is evident in everything he undertakes. But his vamping can be tedious, and sometimes — especially when he tries to be dramatically syncopated — his phrases simply sound misplaced and jarring. His two free-form improvisations, “Affirmation I” and “Affirmation III,” end more with abandonment than resolve. Ultimately, there’s more for him to absorb regarding subtlety and resolution, but there’s plenty of time for that.
Of the two covers, Sting’s “Fragile” doesn’t leave much of an impression. But Alexander’s rendition of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” — the most memorable piece on Warna — presents the pianist at his best. His delight is tangible as he parties through the changes, celebrating the Blue Note classic with passion and whimsy. Grenadier provides a melodic solo, as does Scott, who rolls and rollicks with great artistry. More than any other, this is the cut that speaks to the name of Alexander’s new label: Verve. Here’s to more of that. — Sascha Feinstein