Melissa Aldana’s Indisputable Command

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“I’m looking for musicians who will kick my ass and make me grow,” Melissa Aldana recently said with a laugh.

(Photo: Robert I. Sutherland-Cohen)

In the fall of 2013, T.S. Monk was hollering into a hot microphone on the Kennedy Center Stage: “ They gave you their hearts. They gave you their souls. They gave you everything!”

More than a dozen young saxophonists filed out to the exuberant proclamation. That year, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, two months shy of 25, eventually would be declared the winner of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Saxophone Competition—the heartiest and most soulful of the saxophonists battling it out that long September afternoon in Washington, D.C.

Almost six years later, Aldana tends to downplay her victory. “It can really get in your head,” she said of her experience, sitting in the rec room of a bustling, century-old hotel in downtown Los Angeles a couple hours prior to her gig at the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour all-star sextet. “It’s like checking social media too much. What I prepared for that day when I stepped on the stage was to have fun. That was all I was trying to work on. My performance was a mess, but I did have fun.”

The house band (drummer Carl Allen, bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianist Reggie Thomas) was on its 39th tune of the day when Aldana threw the trio a curveball with a seemingly straightforward original. Her first two tunes, the Jerome Kern standard “Long Ago (And Far Away)” and Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” were delivered with confidence and maturity. She opened the Monk tune with a solo flight of rapid-fire turns and fluttering filigrees, leaving her stamp on the day’s proceedings, a burst of applause encouraging her playful decisions. Her final tune, “M&M,” was a jagged melody propelled by Thomas’ thundering left hand.

“I was the last one to play,” Aldana recalled. “Everybody was tired. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and the trio got lost on the last tune. It brought me back to Earth—just worry about finishing together.” She could hear the tune was falling apart and commanded the veteran rhythm section with unflinching confidence, wielding her horn like a giant brass baton and finishing strong. The lack of perfection in the sound was counteracted with a sense of determination worthy of the prize.

“The judges [included] Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis—people who have seen everything,” she says. “So, I’m not going to go over and bullshit for them.”

Raised in Santiago, Chile, Aldana studied straightahead jazz with a dedicated fervor. Her father, Marcos, stoked that passion, having taken a swing at the Monk saxophone competition himself back in 1991, when she was an infant. (Joshua Redman won that year.) Studying masters like Sonny Rollins and Don Byas, she took off for Berklee College of Music as a teenager and never looked back. In Boston, she met saxophonist Greg Osby, who offered her a recording contract on his Inner Circle record label.

A recording contract with Concord Records was one of the primary perks from the Monk competition win. Aldana wasted no time in getting her band into the studio, releasing an album the next year with her group Crash Trio. The disc, which opens with “M&M,” highlights Aldana’s striding horn amid the authoritative rhythms of drummer Francisco Mela and the sturdy swing of bassist Pablo Menares. Each member contributed a few tunes to the program, which features a subtle take on Harry Warren’s 1931 song “You’re My Everything.” A high-profile release that was smart and spare, the album showcased Aldana’s indisputable command of her instrument—and she’s become an even better musician in the ensuing years.

Aldana is an old soul behind the microphone. “You can really tell how strong a musician is when it comes to ballads,” she said. “You can hear the depth of musicianship. I’m very attached to ballads. Maybe when I’m older I’ll do a full trio album of ballads.”

In the trio format conquered by Rollins’ late-1950s strolling excursions without benefit of chordal support, a lot hinges on the dialogue between the tenor saxophone and upright bass. “Playing trio taught me a lot about what I’m looking for as a musician,” she said. “It’s more than just having someone who plays well.”

Menares has been a reliable anchor throughout Aldana’s professional career. They met as children in Chile, but didn’t really collaborate until they were both working in the States. His unwavering support and piquant solo lines provide the perfect complement to Aldana’s simmering tone. “I’m used to the space and the freedom and the openness of the music,” he said. “I like to have someone who is looking at the bigger picture.”

Following a win in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll (Rising Star–Tenor Saxophone) and the release of a second trio record, 2016’s Back Home (Wommusic), Aldana shifted her artistic direction. Her focus on the bigger picture entailed a larger band and a deep dive into the work of artist Frida Kahlo (1907–’54).

“When I was young, I used to transcribe Frida Kahlo’s paintings,” Aldana said. “The thing that always attracted me to her art was that it was personal. It was related to her experience, her art, her beauty, her relationships, her condition.”

A commission from The Jazz Gallery in New York further sparked Aldana’s inspiration. With a performance expected in June 2018, she dug into Kahlo’s work during the yearlong residency, composing a suite, Visions: For Frida Kahlo. By the time Aldana premiered the work, she had expanded her rhythm section and added two more horn players: her husband, Jure Pukl, on alto saxophone and trumpeter Philip Dizack.

“At some point, I started feeling that I wanted something different,” Aldana recalled. “I heard more piano, and vibraphone is an instrument I have always loved. I wanted to develop my writing more and start incorporating richer harmonies.”

Not long after the premiere of the suite, Aldana spent two days in a New York studio, recording nearly a dozen tracks for her new album, Visions (Motéma). Joining Aldana and Menares for the sessions were pianist Sam Harris, vibraphonist Joel Ross and drummer Tommy Crane.

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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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