Artist: Joey Alexander Trio
Venue: Booth Tarkington Theatre, The Center for the Performing Arts, Carmel, IN
Mileage: 148 or 656 depending how you count it (more below)

Jazz pianist Joey Alexander is a genuine prodigy. He released his first album when he was 11 and now, at 13, he’s got two excellent albums out, has been nominated for a Grammy, and has been getting tons of attention from the jazz world. My mom started listening to him right around the time his first album came out, and she just loves him – so when I saw that he was coming to Carmel, a little ways north of Indianapolis, I went into road-trip-planning mode.

Mom doesn’t drive, so I decided to make a four-day weekend of it: drive to where she is in northern Indiana on Friday, drive to Carmel on Saturday, spend the night in a hotel, drive back to northern Indiana on Sunday, and drive myself back home on Monday. Thus the mileage weirdness above; if I’d just driven from home to the venue, it would’ve been just under 150 miles round trip but I actually put over 650 on the car.

Because I am a giant library nerd, I made dinner reservations for us at Woody’s Library Restaurant, which is in an old Carnegie Library building. The downstairs is a bar-type area, pretty noisy; the upstairs restaurant part has a nice, casual atmosphere – it still feels kind of like a library, although if you look at the books lining the walls for more than thirty seconds you realize they are totally random books probably picked up from some warehouse of books not good enough to make it into a library booksale – random encyclopedia volumes, lots of Reader’s Digest condensed books, and other really random stuff in no particular order. The service could have been better – Mom’s Angus burger arrived without any cheese, so they took it away and brought it back a few minutes later with the cheese, and the very young waitress seemed a little scattered, though friendly and pleasant enough. I had the jerk tilapia, which came with brown rice and asparagus and was very good. Nothing earth-shaking, but tasty. On Saturdays they have a special on their “dessert bites,” two small desserts for $4 – Mom had creme brulee and I had a vanilla blondie with caramel sauce. Again, good, though nothing out of the ordinary. I’d go back there, though probably not for a special occasion.

We stayed at the Renaissance, which was about a ten-minute drive from the venue (if that) and offered a special package via the venue’s website, including free wi-fi and breakfast. A very nice hotel, comfortable beds, and the huge breakfast buffet was great by hotel-breakfast standards – including a great selection of fresh fruit, well beyond the usual hotel offerings of bananas, crappy apples, and canteloupe of questionable ripeness. My only quibble with the hotel is that when booking, you aren’t offered a choice of beds, just “two queen beds or a king.” You have to go back in and specifically request two beds, and when I did that, I got a “sold out, not guaranteed” message. I thought about cancelling and going somewhere else, but decided to chance it. I did call them in the morning before leaving Mom’s and confirmed that we were indeed going to get two beds.

Program page with information about the performers
Program page

The concert itself was terrific! We had front-row seats (hey, I don’t mess around when I take my mom to a show). There were two sets, around 35-45 minutes each, and one encore; the first set included pieces by jazz greats including Thelonious Monk and Billy Strayhorn, the second set consisted of Joey Alexander originals, and the encore was a gospel tune.

The trio (Joey Alexander, bassist Dan Chmielinski, and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr.) has obviously spent a lot of time together. Chmielinski is a wonderfully melodic bassist – I loved so much of what he did – and Owens is a thoughtful, creative drummer. I think the jazz trio is one of the purest forms of music, certainly one of the purest forms of jazz; all the instruments take center stage at moments, nobody is strictly a background player, and it is of paramount importance for the musicians to listen to one another. Especially because jazz is improvisational, it’s almost more of a conversation than a performance. Watching the musicians from so close to the stage, I enjoyed seeing their facial expressions as they listened to and responded to each other – a raised eyebrow, a smile, a bit of an “oh yeah? well, THIS” at times. Listening is such a vital part of playing music, and if you’re not listening to and playing WITH your bandmates, it’s not going to work. Jazz is conversation, and a conversation where someone’s not listening doesn’t work too well. This was a great conversation to listen in on.

And this kid is only 13 – that’s kind of terrifying! When he introduced each set (he announced at the start of each set the names of all the songs he’d be performing), he definitely came across as a 13-year-old, a bit awkward. When he sits at the piano and plays, though, all the awkwardness disappears and he’s fluent, confident. I wonder what he’ll be doing ten or twenty years from now. I hope he doesn’t burn out on music; I think his talent is real and he’s not just a flashy technician. From the time I first started listening to him until now, he’s definitely grown considerably.

The Joey Alexander Trio
Taking bows

Venue Tips:

  • The Center for the Performing Arts consists of three venues – the Palladium, which is the largest and grandest; the Tarkington, which seats 500; and the small Studio Theater. The Tarkington and Studio Theater are in the same building, which adjoins the parking garage – very convenient, and free. For performances in the Palladium, you can pay for valet parking (unless you drive a Jaguar or a Land Rover, which get free valet parking because a car dealership sponsors it – and if you drive one of those, why haven’t you bought me a drink lately??) but the parking garage is just a short walk across a lovely green area. The first time I came to the Palladium, I missed the parking garage entrance at first. It’s just off 3rd Avenue and isn’t that well-marked.
  • It’s a lovely venue, with great acoustics in both the Palladium and the Tarkington (I haven’t been in the Studio Theater). Well worth a visit, although because it’s so far north of Indy it takes me a good two hours each way from home – not counting any time I may spend getting lost on Carmel’s confusing roundabouts (don’t ask, but I’m two for two on this so far) – so I tend not to go to weekday shows here unless it’s somebody I reeeeeeally want to see.

Next up: Stevie Nicks/Pretenders, March 29