Croatian-American Thana Alexa is a different breed of singer. The young, beautiful, and enormously talented winner of the 2011 Jazzon Alpe-Adria International Award for songwriting routinely forces herself to grow by playing with some hard-hitting jazz musicians. Yet, she manages to assert her own style that’s a lot more accessible to all audiences than most of those jazz musicians can imagine. In her new Jazz Village debut album, Ode to Heroes, Alexa throws herself into a recording of mostly original, totally captivating compositions that embrace the jazz, pop, and world music of her liking — with the force of intimidating musicianship that would send any other singer running for the hills.
On the March 10, 2015 release, Alexa has her fiancé, co-producer/drummer/vocalist Antonio Sanchez, pianist Sergio Salvatore, tenor Lenart Krecic, bassist Jorge Roeder, and special guests Donny McCaslin (tenor), Scott Colley (bass), Christos Rafalides (vibes), Jonathan Lindhorst (alto), Carter Yasutake (trumpet), Jason Disu (trombone), and Dario Boente (keys). That’s a lot of firepower, and she knows what to do with it. Whether she’s capturing the spirit of her late brother in the vocal musical miracle of “Ghost Hawk,” floating over shimmering beats in the uplifting “You Are Not Alone,” or letting slip her fondness for a certain drummer in the spellbinding cross-over dance of “Groove Tune.”
The biggest surprise is Alexa’s ability to do more than stand onstage, sing, and look pretty hot doing it. She’s different. Trained as a violinist before turning her attention to vocals and songwriting, she took her studies extremely seriously at New York City’s New School University, especially as a singer with more to give than an attractive physical presence — as unsuspecting musicians would soon learn. After experiencing the typical jazz divide between singers and musicians, Alexa sought to bridge that gap by proving herself night after night, gig to gig until she felt more comfortable onstage following the improvisational complications. That experience shows in every one of the 11 thoughtful, swinging, and fresh songs off her new album, where she is both a star and an accepted member of the recording band.
Today, Thana Alexa gave AXS insight into her drive as a jazz artist who can embody her songs lyrically, wordlessly, and musically — and more than hang with the big boys.
AXS: Your debut album is surprising in so many ways. Primarily, your ability as a vocalist to blend in with strong jazz musicians. In your bio, it says you learned to play well with others as a student. Can you talk more about how your experiences at the New School University shaped you as a musician’s vocalist, rather than another ego-driven singer chasing stardom?
Thana Alexa: First of all, thank you for saying so. That’s probably the best compliment a vocalist can get! When I started studying at the New School, I saw very early on that there was a divide between vocalists and instrumentalists. This divide — which also exists outside of jazz universities — sometimes separates vocalists from musicians, which implies that vocalists are not musicians. This rubbed me the wrong way from the very beginning.
I went into school not knowing much about jazz theory as I had studied classical violin for 13 years before that. Since my knowledge of jazz was very minimal, I felt like I had no grounds to disagree with this vocalist versus musician controversy. However, as I started to broaden my knowledge as a singer, composer, and arranger, I realized that even with my newfound knowledge, the divide still existed and was oftentimes very discouraging.
I wasn’t trying to go on some “vocalist crusade” or anything, but I did want to make sure that people viewed me as a serious musician and didn’t label me in the stereotypical singer category (i.e. not knowing anything about the music other than the words you’re singing). I realized that in order to learn how to “hang with the cats,” I would have to put myself in uncomfortable and challenging situations (where I had my butt handed to me many, many times). But that’s how I learned.
I joined a number of instrumental ensembles at school and always pushed to try to solo. There were many teachers at the New School who supported me in my endeavor (namely Reggie Workman, Dr. Richard Harper, Billy Harper, and Jane Ira Bloom.) I learned a lot from each of them about being free and experimenting with my voice.
I’ve always loved to solo. There is not much curriculum based around teaching vocalists how to practice soloing, though, which is why a lot of singers don’t practice. When I left school, I had enough musical tools to figure out my own practice schedule. I also started studying from books written for instrumentalists (i.e. Hal Crook’s “How to Improvise” and Ted Reed’s “Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer”). I approached the exercises from a vocal point of view and just tried to train my instrument (my mouth, my tongue, and my vocal chords) just like any instrumentalist would do.
AXS: When did jazz really do it for you? Was it through listening to and feeling inspired by the established jazz vocalists, or jazz musicians?
TA: When I was 13 years old, I moved with my family to Croatia (where they are both from). I had always grown up in a Croatian household, but I was a born and bred American girl. I spoke English with my parents, went to elementary school in the plush greenery of the suburbs in Connecticut, had American friends… I felt completely American. When we moved, I had a very difficult first year adjusting, mostly due to the language barrier. I even had to give up my violin studies for a while, because I couldn’t enroll in music school (as it was all taught in Croatian). I had always sung, but somehow listening to and singing jazz, soul, and blues helped me connect with my native tongue. It made me feel closer to home and made me feel like I could really express myself. My dad has a very eclectic taste in music and always had tons of records or tapes lying around. I would hear everything from Louis Armstrong to Pat Metheny to the Bee Gees to Bob Marley. I think I was exposed to good quality music (of different genres) from a very early age, which probably helped train my ears to love good music.
AXS: You are extraordinarily beautiful as well. Have you found that your physical beauty has helped or hampered you in the pursuit of jazz? Do you enjoy surprising people when you get up onstage and blow them away with your chops, because you have the technique and the feel in abundance?
TA: Thank you for the compliment. That’s very nice of you to say! I think that physical beauty can be deceiving. Unfortunately, good looks in jazz are sometimes synonymous with not being talented. If a good-looking girl gets up onstage to sing, play piano, play drums, play a horn, etc., the audience is usually expecting that person to mess up or not be as strong a force as the men onstage. In the beginning, I used to get asked, “Who is your musical director?” or, “Who wrote/ arranged your tunes?” — as if it was impossible to believe that I could lead my own band and write my own music. When I finished college and started gigging around New York City, I found that many people I called for gigs would show up unprepared simply because the expectation was that a “singer’s gig” wouldn’t be challenging in any way. After a while of that kind of behavior — which oftentimes led to some pretty nervous and sweaty instrumentalists onstage trying to read my music — people started to respect me a little more. Beauty can definitely work in your favor, though. If people’s expectations of you are low (for whatever reason) and then you get up onstage and put on a good show, the fact that their expectations were shattered usually leaves a greater impression on them.
AXS: You only recently released Ode To Heroes. What has been the reception so far? Any surprises from the critics who’ve reviewed the album? How have you felt putting yourself out there to the public and receiving so much love in return — that must be enormously scary, even for an artist as together as you seem?
TA: This has been a very exciting time for me. I’ve waited almost three years to release Ode to Heroes! It took a long time to put all the pieces in place, but I think it was worth the wait. I have been getting fantastic reviews from all over regarding my composing, my arranging, my singing, and my vocalizing. I’m always a little worried that people won’t understand what I’m trying to do, but people are smart and observant. Even if what I do isn’t someone’s cup of tea, I know that the effort I’ve put forward to do something new is being recognized. That feels wonderful.
AXS: Let’s get into the bones of this new album, which is incredibly original. What were you and your co-producer/drummer Antonio Sanchez going for in the making of Ode to Heroes? On the surface, it is a great tribute to many jazz musicians who’ve influenced and impressed you. And yet, on a deeper level, it’s also your genuine introduction.
TA: There are many different kinds of people in my life… musicians, non-musicians, younger people, older people, people in different professions, and ultimately, people with all kinds of musical preferences. While writing the music for this record, I was searching for a way to include every single listener in my life into the picture. I wanted to write music that brought together all the genres that I personally enjoy (namely jazz and world music with a pop sensibility) and put that together with music that would be challenging and engaging for any musician to play, basically an enticing collection of tunes for anyone’s ears (musically trained and/or not). In the same way, I wanted to pay tribute to some of the musicians who have inspired me throughout the years and do so in a way that would propel my introduction into the jazz world as a vocalist, composer, and arranger.
Antonio was a huge help in the whole process. He had heard my compositions from the very beginning stages, so he knew them well. Every time I would perform them, he would write notes and give me structural criticism on how to improve or elevate them. All of his suggestions really brought the tunes to new heights. For example, in “Ghost Hawk,” he suggested that it would sound extremely powerful and moving if the song ended with layers of background vocals building up to the climax of the song. All I needed was his suggestion and I went to the piano and started writing. Having played with so many great musicians and having heard so much quality music over the years, Antonio’s ears are priceless. He knows exactly where a tune needs to build, how the listener should travel with the song’s journey and how each tune should relate to the others on the record or in the set. I’ve learned a lot from his ears, his suggestions and, of course, his playing.
AXS: How in the world did you hold your own with musicians like saxophonist Donny McCaslin? That guy is insane! Who else amazed you?
TA: To be completely honest, I’m still trying to hold my own with these guys! It’s always a work in progress! They are so inspiring and all I want to do is be worthy of sharing the stage with them. Antonio and Donny are two of the greatest musicians I know — they inspire and move me every time I hear them. The fact that they played on the record and enjoyed themselves while doing it makes me more happy than I can explain in words. It was also an honor to have Scott Colley on the record. Originally I wanted to have him play on “Ode to Heroes” with Donny and Antonio, but I felt that he would really elevate “When Evening Comes.” He has an incredible touch when he plays ballads and his soloing is powerful and sensitive at the same time. The tune wouldn’t have been the same without his sound. Christos Rafalides (on “Trace Back Your Footprints”) has been equally inspiring to me. I’ve learned a lot from playing with him over the years. He helped me grow a lot by believing in my process and trusting me with his music very early on. I’m eternally grateful to him for all that I’ve learned and all that we’ve experienced together up to this point.
AXS: A lot of jazz vocalists tend to push the band in the background, to showcase their act. But you’re not like that. Has it been hard proving yourself to jazz musicians as you’ve made your way early on? They can be a tough lot, and they also come with a lot of baggage about singers.
TA: After I jumped over the hurdle of being stereotyped into the “dumb singer’s” category, I started to get a little bit of a reputation for having a challenging and interesting gig to play. In the beginning, I really wanted instrumentalists to be able to “stretch” and open up their solos… I wanted all the players to feel like they had the freedom to express themselves on my gig. Originally, I think I went a little too far to one side and a large part of my gig became about soloing. It was great, but I started to get comments from people in the audience that they wanted to hear more of me and less of the instrumentalists. I knew I had to find a middle ground. This is another place where Antonio helped me a lot. Firstly, he suggested that I start playing percussion on my gig, so that I always maintain a place in the band even during periods when I don’t sing. He also suggested that I feature each instrument at different parts of the set, but that I always remain the focal point. Now when I write my music, I think about all of those elements — I think about the amount of time I’ll be singing lyrics, vocalizing, who will be featured on each tune, how long the tunes should be, etc. I think I’ve reached a healthy balance of things.
AXS: Speaking of surprises, what songs surprised you when you actually got in the studio to record?
TA: One of the most surprising songs ended up being “You Are Not Alone.” I was so happy with the way that tune came out, especially after I recorded all the background vocals and percussion. This tune really took a life of its own after it was recorded and became, in my mind, a clear example of the kind of music I’m trying to write and produce: A pop-sounding jazz tune that has really interesting twists and turns, layers, and elements, and can appeal to listeners and players alike.
AXS: Your songwriting relies heavily on the musicality and an instinctual groove. One of your best songs off this new album has to be “Ghost Hawk,” devoted to your brother, who passed away in a motorcycle accident. You almost literally breathe for him in the dramatic fade, as you go into the bridge, repeating “Brother,” against music that simply flies: “So it’s time for you to sleep, Brother. Let me sing into your ear, Brother. This is my lullaby for you, Brother. Go to sleep, wake up, Brother…. Feel my love.” Can you describe what went into “Ghost Hawk?”
TA: “Ghost Hawk” was probably the most difficult of all the tunes I had to record, because I hold it so near and dear to my heart. Writing it was an interesting process, because it came out in individual sections at different times of the year following my brother’s death. It also came out in a different order than what you hear on the record. The first section I wrote was the end, then the groove in 7/4, then the solo section, then everything else kind of fell into place. The way it was written was a clear representation of my grieving process and the steps I needed to take to accept what had happened, connect with my brother in a spiritual way, and also create something that would allow him to keep living. I think of this song as my way of keeping his presence and memory alive in my life. It allows me to tell people about him and let them know that I am and always will be a sister.
When I first wrote this song, I realized that a great deal of the music was very “major” (i.e. I wrote lots of happy sounding chords). I was asked by an audience member why I thought the song had come out like that. I thought long and hard about it and realized that it had to be because of my brother’s energy. His energy was infectious… it was powerful, it was positive, it was crazy, and it was full of life. When I think about him and how he lived I know that there’s no way I could have written a weepy ballad for him. He was a huge spirit trapped in a body that couldn’t handle its own size. He needed rhythm, he needed voices, he needed layers, he needed momentum. Every time I sing this song I feel him… and I know he feels me too.
AXS: While “Ghost Hawk” marks your truth as a balladeer, “Groove Tune” scores five stars both lyrically and musically. Did you realize you had a hit with that one? How did this one come about?
TA: I’m so glad you like “Groove Tune!” After writing so many new pieces of music (some of them difficult to play and very modern sounding), I felt that I needed a “breather” on the record… something that just grooved hard and would provide the listener with a familiar beat, a catchy melody, and simple lyrics. This tune is about the very first time I ever met Antonio Sanchez (who is now my fiancé). The lyrics speak about my immediate attraction to him, but my reluctance to let anything come of that attraction in fear that I would ruin what I knew would be a strong friendship and bond — an experience that I know many people can relate to!
AXS: What do you hear, when you write songs, and perform them with a live band? Are you hearing notes and chords, or are you feeling the lyrics behind the music?
TA: It really depends on the song. Once a composition is finished, I hear all the parts in my head while I perform it. Even if those parts are not being played, I always hear the layers and possibilities. Different songs also mean different things to me, so I focus on different elements of each of them (sometimes lyrics, sometimes chords, sometimes a bass line, or drum groove).
AXS: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a jazz artist?
TA: I think my main strength is that I try very hard and put a lot of work into my craft, because I always want to be better. I think that’s the sign of a good artist. If I came out with this record and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread and that I have absolutely nothing more to learn from this world, then there would be a serious problem!
My main weakness is that I get into my own head very easily and act as my own worst critic. This can propel me to learn more, get better, and reach new heights as a musician, but it can also have a paralyzing effect on my development. I need to be more confident in my endeavors and trust myself more. I think that this record will surely help me with that.
AXS: You’ve got a couple of local gigs going on. Any plans to tour? You could come to Seattle!
TA: I would love to come to Seattle! Let’s do it!
Now that the record is released I will be returning to my local New York City gigs, but I am gearing up for a European tour this summer (starting with a major festival date in Croatia), and a tour in the U.S. in the fall. I can’t wait to play this music for the world!
AXS: The good artists entertain. The great ones move. You’re a great artist who has found the groove, the feel, and the incredibly dense melody in one of the hardest genres to figure out — jazz. What is your secret? Is it learning technique in school and applying it in as many gigs as possible? Does it just come naturally?
TA: School helped me gather the tools I needed to begin this crazy life, getting work after I finished school schooled me, and now I’m just trying to apply everything I’ve learned up to this point to every musical situation that I find myself in. I think that if you do what you love and do it with integrity, you’re onto something and can’t go wrong.
AXS: In your opinion, what is the greatest gift a jazz artist can give to the audience and to the fellow musicians sharing the stage?
TA: Since jazz is not a very popular genre (it was actually ranked the least popular genre in the United States in an article this year), I think the most important thing a jazz artist can give to the audience is human connection. We have to provide real shows that are exciting, deep, heartfelt, true to the artist’s aesthetic, but also shows that don't exclude the listener from the process. I think that a lot of jazz nowadays excludes the listener (almost as if the musicians onstage know some inside joke that the audience isn’t in on). I believe art with substance can exist and still serve all people. You just have to have faith in those people’s ability to understand what you’re doing. A lot of people don’t like to go see jazz, because they say it’s boring or they don’t get it. I think that any music played with heart, soul, high technical ability, and integrity can be understood by anybody. It’s all about the energy that you give off to your audience. If you’re really just playing for yourself, then the audience will feel that. If you’re playing for yourself and the audience, they will feel that too. The vibe you get from any performer directly impacts your experience of that performance.
The greatest gift jazz musicians can give to each other is the effort it takes to play someone else’s music wholeheartedly and with respect. My tunes are like my babies… I created them, helped them grow, and are now watching them impact the world. It’s a very emotional process and that should be respected by all players. People perform at the highest level when they’re comfortable and feel supported by their fellow musicians. It’s a lot like life in general… the more the love felt in this world, the more successful we’ll all be in the end.