Thana Alexa, a borders-blurring singer, made history in Croatia (and beyond) with her Grammy Award nomination
Armed with degrees in psychology and jazz performance from The New School University in New York, Thana Alexa stood out even before she last year became the first Croatian artist in any musical genre to ever earn a Grammy Award nomination.
The fact that her nomination came for "ONA," an album which was inspired by Croatian women in general — and her mother and now 100-year-old grandmother specifically — makes the internationally acclaimed singer's Grammy tale even more notable.
So does the fact that her Grammy-nominated album features her singing in both English and Croatian. Released in 2020, "ONA" draws from the musical traditions Alexa learned in Zagreb and New York, where she was born. She spent nearly every summer since she was an infant in Dubrovnik,
then moved to Zagreb with her family when she was 13.
"I've always had these two very important identities in my life," said the 2021 Grammy nominee, who performs June 4 in La Jolla.
She and her band will appear as part of a two-day, two-concert "Women in Jazz" mini-festival, which opens June 3 with Artemis, an all-female band that features Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes, American drummer Allison Miller and Israeli clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen. The festival is being produced by San Diego Jazz Ventures, in affiliation with The Alexandria at Torrey Pines.
"When I'm here in the U.S.," Alexa said, "I'm 'the Croatian girl.' And when I'm in Croatia, I'm 'the American girl.' But in both places, I've learned to appreciate all the parts of me. And that translates, artistically, in the way I hear and make music.
"I take things from both cultures, whether it's the Balkan time signatures and microtonal folk music of Croatia or the jazz and Black American music I listened to growing up."
Alexa has earned praise on each side of the Atlantic for her artistic daring, stylistic diversity and vocal agility. The praise has come for her both as the leader of her own band and as a member of Migration.
The latter is the eclectic ensemble led by her husband, Mexican drum great Antonio Sanchez, who won a Grammy for his innovative score for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning 2014 film "Birdman." Alexa is featured on his 2018 album "Lines in the Sand" and performed with Migration at its 2019 San Diego concert.
Vocal virtuosity and looping
In any setting, Alexa is as adept digging deep into the lyrics of a new or weathered song as she is when performing wordless, hornlike vocal lines. Doing so enables her to deliver melodies and harmonies in unison with the instrumentalists alongside her.
Alexa adds a contemporary twist to her music through looping, a digital process that enables performers to record multiple layers of music in real time and then sing or play an instrument live on top of them.
Using her voice and an electronic keyboard, she demonstrates the process on a video called "Solo Looping" on her website. She also features looping during her concerts by triggering loops with a foot pedal or with her hands while singing.
"One of the great things to me about looping and using electronic effects is the way I can, if I want, create the sound of a Balkan choir," said Alexa, who began looping at her concerts out of necessity.
"I did a lot of my own backing vocals on my first album (2014's 'Ode to Heroes'). When I shopped the album, record labels and talent bookers asked me: 'How do you expect to do this live?'
"It was Antonio's idea that I should loop. I started using pedals just to recreate what I did on the album. As I got deeper into the world of electronics, that informed what I was composing."
Alexa laughed when asked if looping while singing live with a band required twice as much concentration.
"It can be a recipe for disaster!" she said.
"That's a very scary aspect, when you're not only subject to human error but also to computer error. But I've been doing looping for so long now that using electronics as an extension of my voice can be so rewarding."
Jazzed in Zagreb
Intriguingly, Alexa, 35, didn't fully embrace jazz — or singing — until after her family relocated to Croatia.
Equally intriguing, when her parents, her brother and Alexa moved to Zagreb, she was a dedicated young classical violinist who had won honors in New York for her playing. She credits her inability to speak Croatian at the time for her decision to move away from the instrument.
"I had played violin very seriously, from the age of 4, and was first chair in youth symphonies and my school in New York," recalled Alexa, who does not use her last name, Pavalic, professionally.
"I wanted to be the next Vanessa Mae and play violin with all the top orchestras when I grew up. But when we moved to Croatia, I couldn’t enroll in any music schools because I didn't speak the language well enough.
"I found a violin teacher in Zagreb but had no performance opportunities. And I wanted to connect with the language with which I could express myself, which was English. I had always listened to jazz, blues and soul at home. My dad played everything from Louis Armstrong to Bob Marley and Etta James, so that is what I wanted to sing. I found a voice teacher in Zagreb and it grew from there."
Fortune smiled on her when her parents introduced her to vibraphonist Boško Petrović. A leading figure in jazz in Zagreb and beyond, he became her first mentor in the music. Alexa soon discovered that jazz was held in very high regard in Croatia and in neighboring Eastern European countries, where — during the Soviet Union era — jazz had been outlawed by the communist regimes then in power.
"One of the beautiful things about jazz in Europe is that it's so supported in small countries like Croatia. It is part of the culture there to support great music," said Alexa, who noted the irony in her passion for this quintessentially American-born music igniting in Zagreb.
"When you grow up with respect for this music, it changes your outlook," she said. "When I came back to the U.S. to attend college, I really learned about the history of jazz — and it was like my mind just exploded!"
It was while taking a jazz improvisation course at Northeastern University in Boston that Alexa heard the classic 1959 Charles Mingus ballad "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." She cites John Handy's poignant tenor sax solo in the song as a profound influence on her vocal approach.
"This was the first time I experienced how the voice could be used as an instrument and can sing a song not written for the voice," Alexa said.
"I learned the tune and put lyrics to it, not knowing then that Joni Mitchell had done the same thing (in 1979) with 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat.' I started to see how the voice can be a lyrical and experimental instrument. This was a huge, mind-blowing moment for me."
Since no one in her family had ever pursued a career in any artistic medium, Alexa felt uncertain about doing so herself. That is why — after transferring to The New School in New York — she earned degrees in both psychology and jazz performance.
Alexa credits trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and former John Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman as pivotal teachers, and singles out the Workman-led ensemble in which she had to sing horn parts. But it was former Aretha Franklin/Dizzy Gillespie drum great Bernard Purdie who became her biggest mentor during her studies.
Purdie gave her assignments to compose and write arrangements for the New School's R&B ensemble. He encouraged her to stretch out and take musical risks.
"Bernard also taught me about the business side of music and, in particular, about doing things with integrity," recalled Alexa, who last year joined The New School's music faculty. "He told me many times: 'You've got to do what you mean and say what you mean. And, if you make a mistake, mean it!' "
Alexa and her husband have been a couple for 13 years and married for six.
"I have a thing for drums!" she quipped. "It's been quite a ride."
Alexa spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune on May 15 from Florida, where she and her drummer husband had rented an Airbnb to quarantine after both contracted COVID-19. The interview was postponed from five days earlier because she was unable to speak without discomfort on the originally planned date.
"I'm on the mend, but I was pretty sick a few days ago," she said. "Antonio is doing better as well. We had some pretty bad days and have had two days now without high temperatures. We are still isolating.
"It's so unreal because Antonio and I are vaccinated and have been healthy since the beginning of the pandemic. We did a March tour of Europe that went fine. Our two most recent dates were at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and the GroundUp Festival in Miami, so it must have been in one of those two places.
"We were as careful as possible, but with no health restrictions and 90-degree heat, we could have got infected anywhere. The hard thing is that we were on the road when it happened and I had to cancel two big band performances I was going to do in Europe this month."
Her June 4 San Diego performance with Sanchez is part of a belated tour to promote Alexa's "ONA" album that was rescheduled four times since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent postponement occurred early this year, after the Omicron surge made going on the road impossible.
Not one to sit idly by, Alexa sprang into action shortly after the pandemic began two years ago. Together with fellow singer Sirintip Phasuk and saxophonist Owen Broder, she founded "Live From Our Living Rooms" as an online outlet for jazz musicians and audiences to connect.
The nonprofit's mission statement is to utilize "modern virtual technology to present jazz performance and education experiences that foster support for artists by artists and engage local audiences and a global community to amplify unheard voices, make world-class music accessible to underserved populations, and dismantle racist and sexist structures in music by cultivating a more diverse musical landscape."
What began as a weeklong virtual winter jazz festival grew into multiple "From Our Living Rooms" events, including a nine-day summer festival, that raised more than $140,000 for the musicians who participated. The better-known artists who joined in donated their services.
"We reached out to the biggest names we could think of, including Chick Corea, Christian McBride and Joe and Judy Lovano. And Antonio and I did a duo performance," Alexa said.
"We knew kids were home from school so we did some daytime children's events with sing-alongs. We didn't want to stop with one event, so in the summer of 2020 we did the nine-day Washington D.C. Jazz Festival and helped raised money for musicians there. After that, we contracted 120 musicians for a 12-day creative summit that was also online.
"Having community and camaraderie for and with musicians is important at any time. But during a pandemic it's more important than ever."
Women in Jazz, featuring Thana Alexa and Artemis
When: 6 p.m. June 3 (Artemis), 6 p.m. June 4 (Thana Alexa)
Where: The Alexandria at Torrey Pines, 10996 Torreyana Road, Torrey Pines
Tickets: $50 (general admission unreserved seating), $100 (premium seating) per concert and includes a complimentary glass of wine for each attendee over the age of 21. Two-day passes are $85 and $175.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .