Melissa Aldana’s Expansive Playing Leads Trio Through Central Park Gig

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Melissa Aldana (left), Pablo Menares and Kush Abadey perform Oct. 3 in Central Park as a part of the Walk With The Wind performance series.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Still in the throes of the pandemic, the world’s been starved for jazz in 3D, something to distract us from the omnipresent glow of screens.

An Oct. 3 performance by Melissa Aldana—part of Giant Step Arts’ Walk With The Wind series—provided some relief. For two hours, the tenor saxophonist, who was joined by bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey, served up a sizzling smorgasbord of standards, spiced with the occasional original, for a crowd in New York’s Central Park.

Walk With The Wind is not alone in offering live jazz. Elsewhere in the country, performances have been held under a tent (at the Green Mill in Chicago), on a lawn (at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York), in a vineyard (at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey) and on a patio (at the home of pianist Orrin Evans in Philadelphia).

In her park concert, Aldana played it straight, at least when it came to the warhorses. From the opening number (“The More I See You”) to the closer (“Just In Time”), she operated within the tunes’ classic structures and let her playing do the narrative heavy-lifting. Building tension with a breathtaking variety of rhetorical approaches, she made the strategy work.

Aldana was expansive, delivering devastating runs that morphed into notes bent nearly to the breaking point. But she could also be terse, punctuating phrases with short blasts from the extremes of her instrument’s range or remaining silent, using negative space to powerful effect. Her phraseology always fed the needs of the group, a tight-knit unit given more to taste than flash.

“It’s not really about my solo,” she said in a phone call the day after the gig. “It’s about how we tell the story together.”

Leading the way, Aldana, 31, laid down markers with a syntax all her own, one that elevated the bebop vocabulary of tenor-playing heroes like Don Byas and sometime-collaborator Benny Golson, to whom she paid homage with an unabashedly lyrical, lightly embellished rendition of his “I Remember Clifford.” It was the first time she had played the ballad in public.

Her songwriting proved similarly refined. On “Elsewhere,” which she has recorded in both trio and quintet formats, Aldana offered a subtle nod to another tenor player, Michael Brecker, drawing loosely on a bass line from “Pools,” a Don Grolnick tune off a 1983 Brecker album. In the Central Park set, “Elsewhere” stood out as a vehicle for the trio to explore elasticity of form, and the crowd stayed with them all the way.

The audience, a mix of jazz fans and casual onlookers taking in the music from park benches, was no ordinary one. Nor was the backdrop. Setting up under a giant statue of William Shakespeare, whose bronze likeness loomed over the proceedings, the musicians seemed a bit like Elizabethan troubadours. While they were paid a fee—Walk With The Wind is financed by anonymous donors—the trio also accepted donations from the public.

Yet, the situation felt right. The trio’s narratives appeared to gain by proximity to the master storyteller. The acoustics of the location, at the south end of the park’s mall, were excellent; despite the lack of amplification, every note could be heard in balance. And Aldana’s obvious dedication to her art aspired to mirror the late Rep. John Lewis’ commitment to civil rights; his memoir gave the performance series its name.

The bandleader in August played outdoors before eight people at the Arts Center at Duck Creek in East Hampton, New York. And since New York recently lifted some restrictions on indoor spaces, she planned to play for small audiences in select clubs. The Monday following her Walk With The Wind concert, Aldana was headed upstate to appear at a benefit for the Biden-Harris campaign.

“I’m taking whatever gigs I can, so I have a chance to play,” she said. DB

Correction: A previous version of this story gave inaccurate information regarding the ensemble formats in which “Elsewhere” was recorded. DownBeat regrets the error.