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Photo courtesy of the artist.

When a 13-year-old American kid uprooted and moved with her nuclear family to Croatia, she felt shocked and suffocated. But at 31, Thana Alexa can’t imagine a life lived any differently. Finding in her cultural duality the “full version of [her] identity,” the singer, composer and arranger invites a range of life experiences and musical encounters to inform her work.

Alexa debuts as a leader at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 17, performing a live preview of her forthcoming record ONA that explores another realm of her identity: strength in femininity. In her interview with The Jazz Gallery, Alexa discusses the origin of her effects pedal, combining American and Balkan musical influences, and the afflicted paradigm of the contemporary artist.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re known to explore percussive elements of music in your arrangements and compositions and also in your improvising. When you’re writing, do you tend to feel these thematic patterns and rhythmic pads as you’re writing, or do they develop later in the process?

Thana Alexa: Every song is completely different. It kind of comes to me in a different form. Sometimes there is a very percussive element of it; sometimes it’s all harmonic and then the percussive element comes later. It’s really a case-by-case basis. I do think that since I was a kid who grew up in the States, I’m very influenced by traditional American music, which is jazz. But then having also this Eastern European part of me, there’s an element of Balkan music which has a lot of odd time signatures and minor sounding tonalities and things like that. So I think there’s a really interesting mix of the two identities that affect me personally and then, musically, they just come out naturally.

TJG: Well let’s talk about harmony, specifically for this upcoming record. But before we go in, what’s the release date for ONA?

TA: There’s not a specific release date yet; it’s going to be early 2019. We went into the studio in January of this year, and I was hoping to release it by the summer, but then I wound up going on tour for basically all of February, March and April, and there was just no way to get it finished for the summer. And I didn’t want to release it in the fall, because releasing something in the fourth quarter of the year, if you’re not a super famous artist, is not the best thing to do. So I decided to wait and really put all my time and effort into the post-production of this project. Just like my first record, there are going to be a lot of songs that have very in-depth post-production, lots of voices, lots of percussion, lots of electronic sounds—[the latter of] which is actually very different from my first record. This is going to be a much more electronic sounding record. And then there are going to be a lot of “bare bones” songs, as well, just stripped down, acoustic.

I wanted to give myself time to really find out what this record is all about. You know, I have the story behind it, but musically, even though we recorded everything, it’s still steering me in all these really interesting directions as I edit and as I do all the post-production. It’s been kind of—I don’t know if cathartic is the right word—it’s just been a very interesting, liberating experience to work on this project so far.

It started out as me writing songs about things that I was experiencing throughout the [2016] election process, and feeling kind of left aside as a woman—seeing all the things that were happening in our political situation, not only in the States, but around the world. And then I realized a lot of the things I was writing had this common theme about women. And it wasn’t about me writing and complaining; it was really about this introspective look at being a woman and expressing musically what being a woman means to me. And I realized, through the music, I was kind of giving light to how I discovered the wild woman spirit within me, and how I’ve become comfortable with her. And it’s not a very easy thing to do, for any woman to be comfortable with who they are and how they. I think that’s a daily struggle. We’re all trying to be who we are as individuals, but as women, we’re all trying to be who we are and still fit into society. So I just started seeing all these really interesting things come up in the music, and then that led me to the project.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dezron Douglas is wide awake. He just touched down from a double tour that began with pianist/composer Amina Figarova and ended with trumpeter/composer/singer Jennifer Hartswick, but he’s not tired. In fact, he’s ready for the next hit.

Seven years old when his father first handed him a bass and told him to play, Douglas began gigging professionally at age 12. Now a 30-something sophisticate of the music with five records as a leader/co-leader to his name, the bass player and composer has a clear vision of what’s ahead—a vision lit up with color and heavy with vibration. Douglas and his working band, Black Lion, will grace The Jazz Gallery stage this Saturday, May 12, for two sets. We caught up with Douglas for a wide-ranging conversation about his love of reggae, the shifting roles of a bassist, and the mentorship of Jackie McLean.

The Jazz Gallery: One of the reasons people seem to love playing with you is your harmonic sensibility. You have a way of moving back and forth between responding to what’s happening harmonically and introducing concepts to the conversation. Can you talk about your relationship to harmony and maybe its origins?

Dezron Douglas: Well, specifically with regards to [that question], I was trained by the masters of this music to be able to influence the music, but, at the same time, play the bass. So, over the years, I’ve worked on it and I’ve listened to some of my heroes, like Richard Davis, Charles Mingus, Larry Ridley, Reggie Workman—and the bass players I’m talking about, these aren’t [the only bass players] I listen to, these are just for specifically what you’re talking about, which I call having the key to the big room. My mentor, my teacher, my sensei was Jackie McLean. He used to always talk about music that’s inside of the music. So when you see a sheet of paper, that’s your foundation, but you want to find the music that’s beyond what you see. So there’s ways that you can do that. You can do it rhythmically; you can do it harmonically. And you have to find ways to add to the music, not subtract from it. It’s not about adding a pile of notes or subtracting a pile of notes. It’s more about giving the music what it needs to push it forward and to bring it other places.

And harmony is just another color, and rhythm is just another vibration. So if you can use both of those, you can get to the level of guys like Richard Davis and Cecil McBee and Mingus and Reggie Workman and Larry Ridley—guys that were playing bass during the hard bop era. For me, that’s a period in this music—this African American classical music we call jazz—that’s pretty brilliant. There were some great composers, great musicians who were killing that. Musicians like Freddie Waits, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Kenny Barron were playing, and giving the music what it needed. Alan Dawson, Booker Ervin, Pharaoh Sanders. Even John Coltrane was making hard bop records during that time. It’s just a period in the music that I really fell in love with.

Wayne Shorter—contextually, his compositions are wide open, but he has so much form and structure that was considered to be some kind of hard bop, in that idiom. So, from a bass player point of view, if you can convey all that, and sort of affect the music, it brings you to another level. A perfect example is Ron Carter. That’s the pinnacle. You can’t really get higher. When you’re playing with Ron and Buster [Williams], you’re almost in their world, and you have to go where they’re bringing you, trusting that they’re going to bring you into serene places in the music.

TJG: If we could jump back for a moment to your closest mentor, what is the greatest piece of advice you received from Jackie McLean?

DD: I’ll tell you a story. There’s a list of maybe 100-plus things that Jackie said to me, during that time that I was around him, that have been profound, and they always show up at some point. I still hear him every day. But I think it was maybe my sophomore year in college, and Jackie and Dollie McLean had an organization and building and a school in Hartford called the Artists Collective. They would do these concerts where Jackie would honor his peers, and he would always get a student group to open up for them, usually an advanced ensemble. My freshman year, I started out in Jackie’s advanced ensemble, and we opened up for McCoy Tyner, Toots Thielemans, the Heath Brothers. And then, at the end of my sophomore year, Jackie honored Ron Carter.

Instead of having a group play an opening song for Ron, Jackie calls me up and asks me to play a solo piece for Ron. First of all, I felt like this was the setup of the century because I was far from being ready to play an open bass solo for the great Ron Carter. But I got something worked out—it took me three or four months—and Jackie says, “Okay, I want you to come perform it for me and Dollie. I want to listen to it.” So I showed up at the Collective and it wound up being just me and Jackie in this big room. I walked in, and he said, ‘Okay pull your bass out.’ Of course I’m sweating; I’d never been so nervous in my life, which changed when I eventually had to do this for Ron. But anyway, back to the preview. So I played it, and Jackie said, “Play it again.” So I played it again. He would [always] try to appreciate what you were doing, but if it wasn’t happening, he would get this look on his face that just looked like he couldn’t see, like he was squinting. It was this weird look, and you just knew that you were taking a dump on the stage—or it just wasn’t happening. So after the second time, I kept getting that look, and I just stood there and I was wounded. So then Jackie said, “Dezron, whatever you’re working on, just play, man. I just want you to play.”

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Album art courtesy of Sunnyside Records.

Quarteria, the new record from saxophonist Román Filiú, takes its name from cuartería, the public housing projects in Filiú’s hometown of Santiago de Cuba. Inspired by the neighborhood’s cacophony of diverse sounds and musics, Filiú composed an eclectic suite of music, drawing from his diverse training in jazz, classical, and folkloric idioms. Originally composed as part of The Jazz Gallery’s 2014 Commission Series, Quarteria comes out on Sunnyside Records this Friday, May 11.

That evening, the Gallery is pleased to welcome Filiú and his band back to our stage to celebrate the album’s release. The group will feature several players from the album, including tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, drummer Craig Weinrib, and percussionist Yusnier Sanchez. Before coming out to join the record release party, check out the first two tracks of the album—”Fulcanelli,” named for mysterious French alchemist, and “Grass,” inspired by the compositional practices of Olivier Messiaen—below.

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Photo by Anne-Claire Rohe.

This Thursday, May 10, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to continue our series of Thursday night shows at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens with a solo set by pianist Sam Harris. Juxtaposing a sense of haunting lyricism with striking harmonic angularities, Harris has become one of the most sought-after collaborator in New York, working with the likes of Ambrose Akinmusire, Melissa Aldana, and Ben van Gelder, to name a few. As a consummate accompanist, Harris has had relatively few opportunities to stretch out in a solo format, which makes this concert a rare treat. Before heading out to Queens for the show, check out Harris’s shape-shifting solo from Ambrose Akinmusire’s 2017 live record, A Rift in Decorum (Blue Note).

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, May 10, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome bassist Harish Raghavan and his quintet back to our stage. Over the past several months, Raghavan has been stepping out as a leader with a new working band featuring some of the most exciting emerging players in New York. Reviewing a show by the quintet this past December, Giovanni Russonello of the New York Times noted, “Mr. Raghavan fed his own chancy energy into the mix, playing lines of lacing beauty and impelling the others to put their weight forward, onto the balls of their feet.” To get a sense of that energy, check out Raghavan’s ballad “Harmonics,” always striding forward despite the stately tempo.

At the Gallery this Thursday, Raghavan will be joined by the same co-conspirators in the video above—Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Micah Thomas on piano, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Don’t miss this new group continue to establish its unique space within the New York scene. (more…)