Antonio Sánchez, Thana Alexa Grow Their Partnership

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Drummer Antonio Sánchez and vocalist Thana Alexa have reached a point of mutual influence.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Unison lines and octaves—and in many cases the subsequent departure from that sound—appear in the orchestrations for ONA and for Migration. What’s so appealing about that sound, and about different instrumental combinations delivering that sound?

Alexa: Musically, I wanted to show that one woman is all women. Unison lines can be very powerful, especially when you have moments of unison that then depart and go into a harmony line. Everything is about the entrance of something new. So, when that harmony comes in, it should be a moment, and there should be a reason for that moment to happen. I wasn’t consciously thinking about the unison happening in ONA, but it really showed itself to me after the fact.

Sánchez: I discovered over the years how effective it is to double. When I would record an album, later at home I would double a lot of stuff with my keyboard just to make it thicker. So, you have Thana and Chase playing saxophone, or Thana and John [Escreet] playing piano or the Rhodes, or any kind of combination—even the bass.

Alexa: Or just me using the doubling feature effect.

Sánchez: Right. Whenever we recorded one of my albums, and on [Alexa’s] Ode To Heroes—and ONA, of course—doubling voice just a few layers, the sound starts getting thicker in a way that’s unachievable with any other device. And live, you can make a big, big, big sound. We’ve played some really big outdoor spaces, and though we’re not a rock band, we can have that power and in-your-face attitude.

Speaking of huge sound, your duo performance at this year’s NAMM Show received a lot of attention. People have been checking out recordings of that via social media. Thana, can you talk down your effects rig for that set?

Alexa: It’s my favorite setup: a combination of the Boss RC-505 and the TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch 2. With that combination—using effects from both pedals at the same time mixed with the things that I’m looping—I’ve discovered these sonic abilities that I never thought would be possible with the voice. The voice ends up sounding like a Moog [synthesizer]. And then I’ve been using the Telefunken M80, an incredible microphone for effects.

Antonio was supposed to play a solo NAMM set for Yamaha. And he said, “Thana is going to be with me, and she has all her effects, so would you mind if she sat in with me?” We have been threatening to do a duo project for a while, so we thought for NAMM we’d experiment with something completely improvised, like a Migration duo encore, but expanding on it using loops and effects.

Sánchez: But she started saying, “What are we gonna do?” I said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Alexa: I said, “Shouldn’t we at least decide how we’re gonna start and end?” He’s like, nah.

Sánchez: Her ear is so in tune with that kind of stuff.

Alexa: Our ears together.

Sánchez: I had no doubt that whatever we were gonna do was going to be fine. I always describe a jazz musician as somebody that is comfortable being uncomfortable. Our instincts and our skills are there—and our ears. So, no matter what we do, it’s going to end up being something interesting.

Thana, you have a “necessity is the mother of invention” story about what’s become a hallmark of your sound.

Alexa: We recorded Ode To Heroes in 2012, and then I shopped it around. It had background vocals, overdubs, percussion, and the response I got from most labels was, “We really like your record. How are you going to recreate this live?”

For my birthday, Antonio got me this Boss VE-20 Vocal Processor. One pedal is effects, one is a looper. I just started messing around with my recorded tunes, figuring out how I could recreate them live. Once I figured out how to perform the tunes I had written, I started writing the next series of tunes knowing what the looper could do.

You both view digital manipulation as a device for zeroing in on something that’s very naturally human, then expanding it into this atmosphere of resonant enormity, but always maintaining real human vulnerability.

Sánchez: To me, that’s key. On Lines In The Sand, we’re dealing with what’s going on in the United States—politically, socially—with Mexico. In my writing, that human aspect was at the forefront. Once you have the heart and soul of the music, you think, “How can I make that effect bigger without changing it in a way that it no longer feels human?” Though I do a lot of post-production, the focus is the human players.

On ONA and when you’re improvising live, Thana, you often move microtonally. Does that tendency reflect your Croatian lineage and Serbian folkloric traditions?

Alexa: Musically, Croatia is more folkloric in the major pentatonic sense. It’s not this Serbian, Bulgarian, minor-sounding, odd time-signature tradition. But when everything was Yugoslavia, it was Yugoslavia. So, I have family members from all over the place, including from Belgrade. Musically, I’ve been exposed to both sides. There’s a very deep connection that I’ve always had with that Balkan minor, microtonal, odd time-signature aspect. Being born and raised around New York before moving to Croatia, I have American musical influences that inform the way I blend the two together. It’s not a conscious decision. These are my two identities, and this is the way I hear it.

And speaking about rhythm, I was always so inspired by rhythm, but I didn’t have the kind of exposure, as a vocalist, to rhythmic elements until Antonio and I met. He introduced me to rhythmic concepts that I studied from his drum books. It has informed so much of how I compose and think about music.

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