Thana Alexa and the Jordan Thomas Orchestra

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Thana Alexa and the Jordan Thomas Orchestra

The Italian American Civic Association, Vero Beach, FL, November 18, 2017

Reviewed by Lynn DiMenna for Cabaret Scenes

Thana Alexa
Photo: Salvatore Corso

When a female vocalist sets out to do an Ella Fitzgerald tribute, whether it’s a centennial celebration or not, she had better understand the full extent of what she’s taking on.

Ella Fitzgerald remains one of the most admired and influential voices, male or female, in the history of the Great American Songbook.
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Not only does one put oneself in the same breath as the “First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella,” but she invites all kinds of comparisons to those who influenced her—Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and especially Connee Boswell of The Boswell Sisters.

Well, New York-based songstress Thana Alexa’s tribute to Fitzgerald did her idol proud and put her solidly in a league with other contemporary, top-name Ella interpreters, namely Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin, Diana Krall, Ann Hampton Callaway, and Cécile Salvant McLorin.
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In fact, I suspect Ella’s favorite white female singer, the marvelous Marilyn Maye, would have been mighty impressed herself had she been there to witness Alexa’s performance.

Alexa has been building a name for herself performing at jazz venues, nationally and internationally, and just recently had a sold-out evening at Birdland in NYC. She will be leaving shortly on an Asian/Australian tour with husband, Grammy Award-winning drummer Antonio Sanchez.

Her show in Florida this past November was a return visit to Vero Beach, to reprise her sold-out Ella tribute last year accompanied by the 17-piece Jordan Thomas Orchestra.

Jim Jordan, who leads the orchestra, is a New Jersey native who moved to Florida four years ago and was determined to keep his passion for the Count Basie-style big band alive. In addition to his day job at Easter Seals, finding employment for vets and people with disabilities, he has spent the years since developing a roster of the best musicians in the area, from Orlando to Palm Beach. With a strong, dedicated work ethic, a big heart and a love for the Great American Songbook, this former schoolteacher has created a diverse, energetic and equally committed group of musicians who share his enthusiasm for this dynamic sound and quality arrangements. Fortunately, Vero Beach has been the beneficiary.

The evening, held at The Italian American Civic Association, began with some prized arrangements from the band. Under Jordan’s discerning direction, they honored the Basie legacy with Neal Hefti’s energetic “Splanky,” a sassy “Satin Doll,” and a smooth “In a Mellow Tone,” all with a time-honored mix of dynamic, hard-driving swing and exemplary solos. They ended their set with the ultimate Basie crowd-pleaser, “April in Paris,” with its signature, oft-repeated “one more time” ending.

Jordan met Alexa in New York several years ago and they developed a special friendship. Introducing her, he gushed, “She’s as beautiful inside as she is outside!” Having recognized her talent early, he has watched her blossom into a seasoned, singer/entertainer and he was eager to introduce her to his new hometown audience.

For her part, Alexa delivered. She dazzled the sold-out audience with her unique charm and vocal quality while, at the same time, without imitation, capturing Fitzgerald’s essence with impeccable diction, phrasing, intonation, and exceptional scatting ability.

Opening with an exuberant “Pick Yourself Up,” she followed it with a steamy “Too Darn Hot” and an endearing “Candy” that she dedicated to her 96-year-old grandmother, Angelique, a local resident who was beaming with pride from the audience.

It was “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” however, that set her apart and highlighted her own, horn-like improvisational skills. Granted, she had memorized every nuance of that famous performance of the song, live at the Crescendo in Hollywood in 1961, but that in itself is a rare and impressive achievement and my guess is that, left to her own devices, she’ll be employing more and more of her own, creative scat-singing in future performances.  

“How High the Moon” was another highlight, and why not? It’s another one of Fitzgerald’s signature songs and no tribute would be complete without it or, for that matter, the song she adapted while singing with The Chick Webb Orchestra early in her career, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

Alexa left her audience on a high note with an even greater appreciation for the genius that was Ella Fitzgerald, and with a feeling that a new star was born to carry on her legacy and ensure her music would never be forgotten.

Lynn DiMenna

Lynn DiMenna has enjoyed a multi-faceted career in the entertainment world. She’s been guest vocalist with the Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Count Basie orchestras, as well as a featured “girl singer” with the Stan Rubin Orchestra and The Tavern on the Green All Stars. As a cabaret headliner and CD recording artist, her shows have played clubs from New York’s Stage 72 at The Triad, Metropolitan Room, Laurie Beechman Theater and Birdland to L.A.’s Gardenia. For nearly two decades, she hosted cabaret-focused radio shows in the New York metropolitan area, and now is a contributing writer and reviewer for Cabaret Scenes magazine and its website.