Antonio Sánchez, Thana Alexa Grow Their Partnership


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

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

Sánchez: When we started dating, I was playing a lot with Pat, but I was a full-time sideman. Thana would come to gigs with Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez—these people who were playing crazy, rhythmically complex music. So, like osmosis, it started seeping into her subconscious.

Alexa: Just like we would workshop our own music, Antonio would sit with me and teach me rhythms. I have full GarageBand sequences where he would help me break down the tunes, and show me how to do different rhythms over the grooves that I’d learn for these tunes.

Sánchez: She always wanted to solo, but nobody at school really taught her.

Alexa: In school, I was pretty adventurous. I was one of the first vocalists in a lot of the instrumental ensembles. I remember going into one audition and they said, “You’re in the wrong room.” So, I was definitely taking chances even though I was super raw. Antonio was the one who told me: If you want to solo, you have to learn the vocabulary. And you have to put yourself in an instrumentalist frame of mind.

Sánchez: At that time, I was already trying to be very conceptual about my soloing, storytelling, motivic development. I was trying to apply all that conceptual, storytelling soloing I learned from Pat, who is an incredibly lyrical soloist—and Michal Brecker, Charlie Haden, Chick Corea—to my music. So, I started giving those ideas to Thana: Sing one phrase, leave space, repeat that phrase, add a little something. Because she has amazing ears, I knew it would only be a matter of having patience and just doing it. I remember right around the time when we were talking a lot about it, she was getting very frustrated because it was hard for her to put it into practice.

Alexa: We’re talking around 2009, 2010.

Sánchez: Right. Then she sat in with a friend of ours, the vibraphone player Christos Rafalides. I remember she started soloing and I thought, “My god!” It was like an amazing solo where she applied everything we had been talking about. I really teared up.

The lyrics on ONA run the gamut from figurative to didactic, even incorporating Staceyann Chin’s spoken-word recitations. What was your greatest lyrical challenge for the album?

Alexa: On the title track, I struggled with the line: “I am woman/ I am free/ Every one of you/ Came from one of me.” When it finally came to me, it gave me chills. On “Set Free,” the song I wrote for my brother, “When your name became a stone” is the image that I had when I saw his name carved in our family [headstone] in Croatia. It was a striking visual for me, and that was the only way I could explain it in words. So, there are ways in which the lyrics came to me naturally, and some I really labored over. Staceyann brought her own words. What she recites is an excerpt from a poem she wrote for the #BlackLivesMatter movement in her new book, Crossfire.

Would you discuss your intention for including female collaborators for the ONA sessions?

Alexa: I wanted artists that were all extremely different but were all women. The duo that Carmen [Staaf] and I did for my brother’s tune, I lost it in the middle of her solo. I was feeling totally fine, and then she started playing. It felt like she was playing my grief. Regina Carter has been so supportive and inspiring. She came and recorded her parts in the studio here. Her solo on the record is the first take. When you can witness, in real time, someone doing exactly what they were put on this earth to do—amazing.

When Becca [Stevens] and I were at The New School, I remember thinking, “Man—she has a voice, she’s composing, she’s doing really interesting things rhythmically.” I idolized her for such a long time. The tune that I heard her on was this folky tune I’d written for my best friend and her husband, which we recorded here in the studio. That was amazing—singing into the same mic and riffing together.

For the Croatian lyrics, I had a vision of this village of Croatian women screaming and singing in this Balkan way. I thought I was going to overdub all that myself. Then a friend of mine, Astrid Kuljanić, invited the ROSA Vocal Group to sing a tune with her during her album launch at Carnegie Hall. When I heard them singing this old Serbian folk tune, I knew they had to be on this record. In the hallway at Bunker studio, they were doing their Balkan warm-up, which includes this nasal sound using half-steps and quarter-tones. Sarah Charles said, “I’m going to record this for you.” And I ended up using that sound as the very first thing you hear on the record. I invited them to the studio here and recorded them standing, holding hands around the microphone, doing that same warm-up but in the tonality of the tune. And that’s what you hear.

What’s on your 2020 agenda?

Alexa: I’m excited to have Dan Pugach arrange ONA for big band, so I can have this different sonic environment with the same message and the same story—and use it in a completely different context.

Sánchez: I have a new project for [Warner Records] based on my 2017 CAM Jazz release Bad Hombre. Because of Donald Trump, that term has become a battle cry for me, but also an alter ego that allows me to do some crazy shit. For that record, I learned how to use all this new gear, how to use ProTools to record myself, edit, mix, post-produce. It was a very experimental album for me, both musically and technologically. I decided I wanted to get other people heavily involved in the material.

How was your creative process different from that of the first Bad Hombre release?

Sánchez: I thought I could do a continuation of what I’d done before, this time having complete creative control, and also placing social justice at the forefront. I started asking other artists whom I admire thoroughly to provide me with raw material. So far, the ones who are confirmed are Meshell Ndegeocello; an incredible singer from Mexico, Silvana Estrada; Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails; Lila Downs; and Rodrigo y Gabriela.

I wasn’t sure if Meshell sent me a tune or a sketch. It was voice, a lot of space with a click, then a bass line. I looked it up online to see if she had already put it out, and couldn’t find it. So, I started piecing it together my way, and I showed it to somebody else and they said, “This is so cool, but it’s so different from the original.” And then I looked it up again, and I found it. For some reason the first time around I didn’t find it.

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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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