Thana Alexa | ONA Review
by Jeff Becker
Thana Alexa is a Grammy® nominated and Downbeat cover vocalist, composer, arranger, and producer that uses her voice lyrically and as a lyricless instrument. Her original music has a deep footing in jazz while having textures of contemporary soul and world music. Alexa is also focused on creating female-focused projects and, together with Grammy® nominated artist Nicole Zuraitis and bassist, Julia Adamy formed SONICA. This trio fuses electronics, three-part harmonies, electric bass, keyboards, and percussion. Another one of her projects is Founding Mothers of Jazz in conjunction with MusicTalks Concerts to celebrate and honor the powerhouse women who helped build the jazz genre from the ground up, many of whom are not historically recognized for their contributions because of their gender. Alexa’s most essential and ongoing collaboration has been with her husband, five-time Grammy® winner Antonio Sanchez (composer for the Oscar-winning Birdman film and drummer with Pat Metheny for 20 years). Together with his band Migration, they have recorded three critically acclaimed albums, including the most recent CAM Jazz recording Lines in the Sand, a protest record about the immigrant experience. The group has toured worldwide and electrified audiences throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Alexa’s latest album is titled ONA.
The ensemble consists of Grammy-winning drummer and co-producer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Matt Brewer, pianist Carmen Staaf, and guitarist Jordan Peters. The theme of the project is celebrating the feminine. It features an all-female line up of unique guest artists Regina Carter, Becca Stevens, Claudia Acuña, Sofia Rei, Nicole Zuraitis, Sarah Charles, poet Staceyann Chin, and ROSA Vocal Group, including Aleksandra Denda, Astrid Kuljanic, Tiffany Wilson, Shilpa Ananth, Valentina Blu Lombardi, and Eleni Arapoglou – who specialize in Balkan singing.
“Ona” opens the album with the Rosa Vocal Group singing beautiful vocal harmonies with Alexa in an A cappella setting. The bass enters, and the vocal choir adds vocal counterpoint to the harmonies. Sanchez adds his drums as Alexa switches to lyrics with a powerful message. For the chorus, the vocal group joins in for support. Each pass through the form brings more layers and instrumentation. In 2017, Alexa attended the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., the largest single-day protest in American history. “I have never felt so motivated to express my right to resist, to protest, to be heard, and to support a positive movement of change.” That inspired the theme of the album and informed the lyrics. Alexa’s vocal solo is a decisive moment in the song, and her passion transfers through her lyricless vocal lines. The Croatian lyrics are comprised of sayings and teachings she has learned from her grandmother (with whom she speaks Croatian), and the English lyrics are rooted in life experience with her mother (with whom she speaks English). Alexa says, “It is a beautiful combination of the two most prominent female voices in my life.”
“You Taught Me” has an intimate guitar part by Peters and lyrics that focus on the relationship between father and daughter. Her vocal timbre switches to a sweeter and soothing delivery as she matches her voice to the lyrics’ emotions. As the song develops, vocal harmonies, Sanchez’s stunning brushwork, and Brewer’s warm acoustic bass sound all evolve to create a stiffing performance.
ONA is a powerful statement and artistic plateau for Alexa. The music has a powerful message conveyed through many emotions, from sensual to vulnerable and joyful to spiritual. Alexa’s singing is stunning, and she has many vocal personalities and techniques. The ensemble and guest are all excellent, giving ONA many standout moments.