Aldana Displays Confidence, Grace During Windy City Residency


Melissa Aldana poses outside the Jazz Showcase in Chicago during her residency at the club May 5–May 8.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

“Grandfathered” is a term for pre-existing conditions that are handed down through generations. In Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana’s case, the transfer happened overtly when she was handed her grandfather Enrique “Kiko” Aldana’s Selmer Mark VI tenor at a tender age.

Kiko founded a swing band called “Orquesta Huambaly” that was prominent around Santiago, Chile, in the ’50s and ’60s. Melissa’s father, Marcos, is a session musician and prolific teacher who inherited Kiko’s skills, which led him to participate in the Thelonious Monk Competition in 1991. That was the same talent contest that his daughter won in 2013, the first woman instrumentalist and first South American musician to do so.

During a “meet and greet” that casually morphed into an intense, illuminating master class at PM Woodwind’s performance space in Evanston, Illinois, on May 7, Melissa told a well-informed group of fans how her father insisted she methodically memorize Charlie Parker solos by ear when she was 6 years old, constantly urging her to observe every nuance of recorded performances, including traces of vibrato and ghosted notes.

Small wonder that Aldana developed at a rapid rate. Early exposure to Sonny Rollins’ Plus 4 album with Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Prestige 1956) led her to summarily reject the offer of a new alto sax on her birthday in favor of a tenor.

Aldana commands a big, richly textured tone, and her playing is penetratingly intelligent and interactive. A salient influence on her style is the hyper-musical saxophonist Mark Turner, whose musical approach is full of subtleties, virtuosity and deep listening.

A rhythmic audacity and playfulness reminiscent of Joe Henderson and Rollins are also present in her playing. Aldana has taken the latter’s deployment of the trill to a new level, sporadically palming each of the right-hand side keys to ornament her lines and long tones, which frequently feature intriguing pitch swoops.

Marcos teased his daughter—“Pretty good for a girl”—when she won the coveted Monk prize he had also sought. Aldana has admitted that during her days at Berklee College of Music (from which she graduated in 2009) she worked a little bit harder to cut her male peers in blowing sessions.

But a spirit of congenial collaboration was in evidence when fellow tenor saxophonist Greg Fishman spontaneously joined her and bassist Dennis Carroll to play some tunes at PM Woodwind. During interpretations of “But Not For Me,” “I Thought About You” and a rousing “Rhythm-A-Ning,” what registered most was Aldana’s respectful musicality, complementing Fishman’s phraseology yet always confecting fresh turns of her own.

After bestowing her takes on “Ask Me Now” and “East Of The Sun,” Aldana fielded questions, generously and with relaxed vigor, at the storefront space in Evanston.

Downtown during a concurrent residency at Joe and Wayne Segal’s storied Jazz Showcase in Chicago that weekend, the focus, beyond lovely versions of “Monk’s Dream” and a gloriously pendulous “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered,” was on originals from Aldana’s fourth and latest album, Back Home (Word of Mouth).

The title cut, rather than a wistful paean to her native Santiago, references her delight in the trio music of Rollins and embraces compositions from her Crash Trio: compatriot bassist Pablo Menares and German-born drummer Jochen Rueckert.

The porous nature of her trio context—sans piano or guitar—suits Aldana’s exploratory style. After two quartet recordings on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle label, Free Fall and Second Cycle, she elected, through the deal offered with her Monk competition victory, to record as a threesome on the 2014 disc Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio (Concord).

“M&M” and “New Points” from that Concord session both resurfaced at the Showcase, as well as Menares’ lovely “En Otro Lugar” (“Elsewhere”) from Back Home, which demonstrated how the musical triumvirate could flow together intuitively while staying out of each other’s hair.

In his teaching ethos, Marcos Aldana stresses, “Jazz is the expression of our lives through the instrument and therefore we must learn to interpret experiences, sorrows, joys and frustrations.” This notion has surely inspired autobiographical underpinnings in Melissa’s compositions, despite a certain “emotional ambivalence” that jazz scholar Ashley Kahn refers to in the liner notes to Back Home.

Such emphasis on internal expression allied to her own exacting technical standards has stamped the 27-year-old Chilean pioneer with unmistakable artistic integrity and a centered command of her trajectory. DB

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