A creative force to be reckoned with, Thana Alexa is forging new paths into the jazz industry. The vocalist/composer/arranger has recently released her new album, ONA, solidifying her stature as a voice for women around the world. She was a nominee for the 2011 PORIN Music Awards, winner for the Jazzon Alpe-Adria International Composition Competition, a runner up for the Made in New York Jazz Competition in 2014, and a nominee for DownBeat’s Critics’ Poll Rising Female Vocalist for four consecutive years in a row. She has performed and recorded three critically acclaimed albums along with Antonio Sanchez in the group Migration, as well as four albums with Gene Ess.
Thana released her new solo album, ONA, in 2019, succeeding her first solo album, Ode to Hereos in 2015. “ONA is the musical expression of what being a woman means to me.” Thana explains. “It is the discovery of the wild woman spirit within me and the experiences I’ve encountered in setting her free.” The album features the Grammy award winning drummer and co-producer Antonio Sanchez, Matt Brewer, Carmen Staaf, and Jordan Peters, as well as an all-star all-female line up of special guests, Regina Carter, Becca Stevens, Claudia Acuña, Sofia Rei, Nicole Zuraitis, Sarah Charles, poet Stacyann Chin, and the ROSA Vocal Group.
I got the chance to sit down with Thana and delve deeper into her creative process and making of the album. We also got the chance to talk about the upcoming Online Festival and Fundraiser, “Live from our Living Rooms,” which will feature such heavy hitters as Chick Corea, Christian Mcbride, Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano, along with many other talented artists.
Thana's musical education started with classical violin at four years old. A New York native, her and her family moved back to Croatia when she was thirteen. “I had never lived there and going to visit a couple of weeks in the summer every year is very different than suddenly being plucked from your daily life and going to a completely different country, different language, it was a culture shock.” Singing became a safe haven, a way to keep connected to her first language, english, while learning more about her Croatian heritage. “This album is a culmination of who I am, it honors the parts of my family from Croatia, ex-Yugoslavia, and of my life as an American both musically and culturally.”
ONA translates as “She” in Croatian. The album celebrates women, exploring aspects of womanhood: everything from women's rights, strengths, passions, spirituality, too sexuality. The idea for ONA evolved over the course of a couple years, but with Thana’s attendance at the 2017 Women's March in Washington DC, everything changed. Participating in the groundbreaking historical movement was something Thana had never experienced before and was deeply inspired by the event. “I had never felt so motivated to express my right to resist, to protest, to be heard and to support a positive movement of change.”
“That was the beginning of the journey,” says Thana. “After the march, I started to write more music for the album, not realizing at first that the themes for the compositions all happened to be about women. I was about three or four tunes in and I started to see this trend and it suddenly jumped out at me. It was really an organic, subconscious process, that led me to a women’s empowerment theme, it was what was going on in the news, the Me Too movement, and, of course, the election of Donald Trump. It just seemed like all the musical signs were pointing towards this theme, and I ran with it.”
Nowhere is that inspiration more prevalent than in the powerful track “The Resistance”, a battle cry for women’s rights. When searching for the right textures and sound for the track, Thana explains, she realized she wanted a protest feel, something you could march to, something that conveyed the heart of the women’s movement. “It’s a call to action!” she explains, eventually settling for a spoken word segment rather than the gritty guitar solo section.
“I started researching feminist poetry and Staceyann came up on youtube. I watched 10-15 videos of hers and just felt floored, empowered, and slightly uncomfortable. She swears, and says exactly what she means and feels. No walking on eggshells, she’s going to say what she feels, take it or leave it.”
Including the spoken word artist/LGBT/political activist, Staceyann Chin, was on the money, leaving very little to the imagination. The message is clear, rise up, protest, demand equal rights, make a scene. Add fuel to the political fire.
Speaking more with Thana about the women’s movement, I asked if she had any ideas on what we as women can do to take the reins and be recognized as equal talent in the field. Her response was to keep up the fight, and to change the narrative. Working on ONA as an empowerment album inevitably led her to other feminist projects. “I co-lead a trio, SONICA (an all female group), with Nicole Zuraitis and bassist, Julia Adamy. It’s about exploring music writing with other women.” She also started The Women of Jazz, a concert series focusing on historically significant musical stories of women who were writing, arranging, and contributing to jazz, women who were (still are) so often neglected by history.
“It's important to do the research, it's difficult because there is not a lot of information out there, but if you keep digging, you find these incredible stories of women who were writing, arranging, and contributing to the genre that didn’t often make it into the history books. It's worth it because all it takes is to do a single show, share it with one audience, and then they will share it. It’s really about exposure, making these stories known and backing it up with powerful music behind it.”
Together, these projects are helping to shed light on the feminine struggle, helping to correct the historical records that attribute the highest accomplishments of the jazz realm to men. The truth is quite the contrary, women have had a far more substantial contribution to the genre and have a great deal more to develop. The idea behind ONA was to bring in a diverse and talented group of female artists to celebrate the female experience, not to hate on men, but to honor and value feminine artistry.
Among the all-star cast of female guest performers on ONA, Thana explains how she met Regina Carter, the renown jazz violinist and recipient of the MacArthur Fellows Program, commonly known as the “genius grant”. Regina is featured on the track “Pachamama”, the indigenous South American goddess of fertility and harvest.
“Regina was a special guest for a show I was doing with the bassist Michael Olatuja (Lagos Pepper Soup), she was someone I had been listening to for a long time but had never played with, so it was a huge honor for me to share the stage with her. We had a solo together and it was a really moving moment for me as an artist.”
Years later, Thana started to write for ONA and couldn’t stop thinking of having Regina on the track. “I just heard her strong violin sound on there somehow, I knew I had to reach out.” Regina naturally agreed and recorded the solo in Thana’s basement studio. “She nailed it on the first take, just seeing what a person who was born to do a specific thing can do, when you see them performing that thing, it’s really powerful.”
Regina Carter lays down a calm and collected solo for “Pachamama”. Showcasing a unique improvisatory sense, her sound is rooted in the rural traditional vernacular of early Americana. The effect is a special feel to the piece that would likely not have come through without Regina, and it ties in well with the exploration of Thana’s multiethnic upbringing.
The lyrics for “Pachamama” and “He Said She Said” came about from a trip to Peru. She spent ten days surrounded by nature, it was an uplifting and empowering experience. Feeling so connected to the ecosystem, arriving back in NYC when it ended was a difficult transition.
“Coming back to NYC was an emotional shock, both mentally, and physically. It made me realize how nurturing the earth is and how we have gotten so far away from it. We have not, as the human race, realized what we are doing to the earth; what we are doing to ourselves. The earth will continue to exist far after we are gone and the earth will continue to change, reform, and rejuvenate but we are the ones who are killing ourselves. Mother nature is mad.”
The result is a message, the planet is not inexhaustible, it's finite, and that shouldn’t be news to anyone, the need to protect it transcends all cultures.
Thana explored female sexuality in her original, “Animal Instinct” and a cover of Massive Attack’s, “Teardrop”. “Part of this album was dissecting what is it that makes me feel like a woman and part of that is my sexuality and feeling like a sexual being.”
ONA is a testament to a woman’s soul, a biography of her spirit. The styles and textures utilized employ influences that span the globe. To call the album strictly straight-ahead jazz, however, would not be entirely accurate. Thana adds that the departure from strict straight-ahead jazz was not a conscious decision.
“The way the music scene has been changing, the way the jazz genre has been morphing under a larger umbrella, it just happened that way. I have just been very influenced the past five years by other styles of music. Jazz is still my point of reference, it’s what I studied, the place that I start from harmonically and structurally, but then I’m also influenced by my Balkan roots which utilizes these odd time signatures and micro tonal sounds. I also like groovin' music as well, it’s basically what had to come out at this point in my development.”
Jazz still being the core of Thana’s work, she performs routinely with Antonio Sanchez in the group Migration as an experimental vocalist. It is with Antonio that she will be performing, April 7th, for the festival and fundraiser, Live From Our Living Rooms. The project is a passion of Thana’s that she helped create in response to the Covid-19 pandemic where donations are collected to help local musicians who are out of work from social distancing. Sponsored by Elad Kabilio of MusicTalks, a non-profit organization, individuals and institutions can make tax deductible donations while enjoying a live online concert for an entire week.
“All of our strengths fulfilled each other's weaknesses and ended up creating something very powerful. I’m incredibly amazed by the reaction, just how quickly everyone responded and with such positivity and willingness. It was amazing to see the people at the top of the jazz community were not only willing but excited about it!.”
In fact, the response for the event has been so overwhelming that they are considering a second week of performances to keep up with demand. The festival will be on CrowdCast and available on the official site (livefromourlivingrooms.com) and on the artist’s individual Facebook pages. The line features nightly performances of heavy hitters, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell, Christian McBride, Joe Lovana & Judi Silvano, Becca Stevens, Owen Broder, and of course; Thana Alexa & Antonio Sanchez. There will be four events a day for seven days straight, including 11:30 am children show, followed by a 3 pm interdisciplinary or master class program, then a 7 pm and an 8pm performance. All proceeds will go to grants for local musicians, donations and applications can be found on the official site (livefromourlivingrooms.com).
“We all have to support each other,” Thana explains. “The festival will give way to a lot of interesting and creative exchanges, who knows, it may inform the future of music, how it’s performed, how it’s shared, it may open up ways for people around the world to be exposed to music that you typically only experience in New York jazz clubs, it’s going to be interesting to see how it develops. If nothing else, it will be an amazing way for us to continue a meaningful exchange of ideas while we’re all in our individual quarantines.”
And while gigs seem to be canceled through August she keeps busy teaching and writing. She even teased possibly doing an album with her husband. Back in January while at NAMM where Antonio was for Yamaha, they gave two impromptu shows. Completely improvised they realized they had stumbled onto something amazing. We can only hope that we get a studio album from the duo.
As we rounded out our interview, I asked what we always ask, a sometimes impossible question, what is your favorite jazz album of all time? The answer was The Way Up by Pat Metheny Group, notably featuring her husband on drums.
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