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Thana Alexa: Singer And Instrument

R.J. DeLuke By

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Alexa began hitting gigs after graduating. Going to jam sessions. Meeting people. She met Christos Rafalides a vibraphonist from Greece, who was known to play with singers. They played at his apartment. "There was something, musically, that just clicked with us," she says. "We've been playing ever since. I've played in his band. He's played in my band. He's on the 'Footprints' track on the record... He's exposed me to a lot of real work in New York. I got to play with great people right off the bat, who kicked my butt. And I got a great learning experience from it. It's fantastic. Equally so, I've been singing a lot with guitarist Gene Ess. We've done two records together.

The newest, Eternal Monomyth (Simp Records), comes out in April 27. "From him I've also gotten the chance to play with a lot of great musicians. Clarence Penn, Ari Hoenig, David Berkman, Gene Jackson. Some great, experienced, seasoned musicians. His music is very instrumental, so it's forced me to get out of my comfort zone and become a musician."

Ode to Heroes was recorded in 2012, but took a bit to get it released this year.

"It's a great feeling. It's been a long time coming," says Alexa. "A lot of the people on the record I do play with on a regular basis. Which is great, because since we've recorded, it gives me the opportunity to develop the music live."

Alexa wanted her first release to be a tribute record, "to some of those musicians who have really inspired me, namely Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. But I also wanted to pay tribute to people in my personal life that have also had a huge impact and have been a huge part of my development and my experience in the world and how I've grown. The title track, 'Ode to Heroes,' funny enough, I wrote thinking of Antonio Sanchez and Donny McCaslin. I didn't write it for them, but I had their sound in mind. It was the first tune that I actually sat down and wrote thinking of musicians. How they would sound and how their voices would carry in the material that I was writing. To have them actually record it was a real honor. It was great. It sounded exactly the way I heard it in my head. That was fabulous."

"Ghost Hawk" was written for her late brother, Nicki, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2010.

"This was my way of dealing with the grief and the pain that I was going through. But also allowing his spirit, which was very positive and very energetic, to keep living somehow. He was very young when he died. So he didn't have any kids. He didn't have anything to keep his memory alive other than the stories that we all tell, those who knew him," she says. "When I started performing 'Ghost Hawk,' a lot of people would ask me why it sounds so positive. Because there are a lot of major sounding chords. The beat is energetic. Somehow, it just came out that way. It came out that way because that was his personality. That's the way that I remember him and I would like others to remember him. The tune, lyrics-wise, brings you to different points. [In the lyrics] I talk to him. I talk about what he told me. Then I also talk to my parents. Then I speak more generally in the very end, in the section that goes around and around, with all the background vocals. I think that's just his energy. That came out in the form of music when I was dealing with the fact that he was no longer around physically."

Alexa had been writing poetry and writing songs on the guitar going back to her childhood. But that avenue of expression widened through jazz training. "My ears opened up to something else. That's what gave birth to a lot of the tunes on this record. That foundation in jazz and my ability to then arrange tunes that I had heard. Like 'Footprints,' and 'Take Five.' Then express myself in my own compositional voice which are the other tunes, like 'Ghost Hawk' and 'You Are Not Alone.'"

She had a style in mind in writing for the record, and its one she embraces in her overall musical outlook. Alexa likes the complication and challenges that are inherent. But she wants it to have accessibility, while still stimulating the people who play it—and the audience.

"I had this vision that I wanted to create music that was easy to listen to, in the sense that a more mainstream audience would be attracted to it. The somewhat pop sensibility that's in it. But then on the player side of it, music that might be a little more challenging. Complicated harmony and lots of different intricate parts and sections. That's something I tried to achieve with this record. Something that's a little bit more user-friendly from the audience side, and something that makes people sweat on the bandstand.


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