Melissa Aldana: A Sprinkle of Stardust

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“I always have this feeling of emptiness after I play a concert,” Aldana said. “This has been for years. Sometimes I can easily cry, and there’s nothing wrong.”

(Photo: Eduardo Pavez Goye)

Melissa Aldana’s musical journey has been sprinkled with stardust, from 1990s TV appearances as a saxophone prodigy in her native Chile to a 2019 Grammy nomination for a solo on “Elsewhere,” off her last album, Visions (Motéma). In between, just as she was finding her footing in New York, Aldana won the Monk competition — the first female instrumentalist to do so — in 2013.

Now, at age 33, she is celebrating the release of 12 Stars, her debut album on Blue Note. Eight tracks that mine the depths of her interpretive gift, the album, out March 4, yields a bounty of new material wrapped in a fresh sonic package that she will bring to a six-night release party at the Village Vanguard, her first booking as a leader at the storied club. As COVID permits, months of touring will follow.

But as she sat in the dressing room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on an early winter’s night, all that stardust momentarily seemed irrelevant; indeed, a few stray particles fell to Earth. While she waited to take the stage at Dizzy’s Club as the sole woman in bassist Carlos Henriquez’s acclaimed nonet, she revealed a profound melancholy of long standing.

“I always have this feeling of emptiness after I play a concert,” she said. “This has been for years. Sometimes I can easily cry, and there’s nothing wrong.”

Her bearing did little to predict the sudden revelation. Eminently well prepared and solicitous of a visiting writer, she exuded the warm confidence of one not given to tears. Onstage, she was in full command, delivering a solo of such exquisite cogency on Henriquez’s “Moses On The Cross” that Henriquez, caught between sets, was rapturous.

“You just don’t find people like that in this world,” he exclaimed.

Plaudits like that hardly account for the tears. In fact, praise for Aldana has become such a routine ego-boost before, during and long after the show that the standard-issue, post-performance letdown seems at best a superficial explanation. Those who know her well point to something deeper at work.

“It’s an existential emptiness,” said singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, a confidant and longtime admirer of Aldana’s who created the surreal cover art for both Visions and 12 Stars and performed with her in the impactful all-woman group Artemis.

By Aldana’s own account, playing and being are for her so intertwined that the loss of one can complicate the other. “When I’m playing,” she said, “it’s such a beautiful experience to be in the moment. It’s something that’s so hard to just be. And after the concert, I’m just so sad to go back to my crazy head.”

Ironically, escaping her “crazy head” and entering others’ mental spaces has proved key to her extraordinary musicianship. The vehicle has been transcription. Starting as a child who dissected Charlie Parker solos under the tutelage of her father, saxophonist Marcos Aldana, she has turned transcription into a magnificent obsession that can involve years of work delving into a single artist’s solos. The payoff: grasping intentions, internalizing concepts and gaining self-knowledge that can be used to find one’s voice.

“My process as a musician has always been imitating to understand, ‘Who am I?’” she said.

She has applied the process most consistently to the improvisations of Sonny Rollins — who she became enamored with to the point that she switched from alto to tenor — after hearing 1995’s Sonny Rollins +3 at age 12. Opening a laptop in the Lincoln Center dressing room, she called up a 2017 video of her soloing on “Without A Song,” a tune Rollins revisited many times. In the solo, her lines and counter lines evoke without imitating Rollins’ question-and-answer approach to thematic development, his liberal application of humor and his illiberal intolerance of substandard performance.

Rollins’ body English, in subdued form, is suggested as well.

“I’m trying to think like he’s thinking,” Aldana explained.

Adopting Rollins’ thinking has meant going beyond the application of purely musical concepts; she has also acquired his legendary predilection for extreme practice. In the dressing room, she had spent hours practicing while her new apartment in Brooklyn was being renovated. That apartment has a soundproof booth in which she can play at full volume to her heart’s content — no small consideration for a musician who, in the past decade, has moved at the rate of nearly once a year.

“She is the hardest-practicing musician I’ve ever met,” Salvant said. “She logs the most amount of hours of anybody I know. On tour, we purposefully try to avoid being even remotely close to her in the hotel because you know that if there’s going to be a lobby call, she’s waking up early in the morning and going to be doing long tones for hours before we even leave.”

Few would argue with the results. Don Was, president of the Blue Note label, said he signed her on the strength of a live recording she sent, his knowledge of her last album and her work with Artemis, whose most recent album, Artemis, was also on Blue Note. He had met her on Zoom but not in person.

“I think her mastery of the instrument is just remarkable,” he said. “She’s the real deal, transcending thinking about notes and technique to speaking through her instrument.”

12 Stars, he said, had been made largely on her own. Along the way, she sent him some demos and the finished work. “When I heard it, I knew what she was doing because I was familiar with her earlier work, and I had a sense of where she was headed with these compositions and where it was going to end up.”

As it happened, the album ended up in a different place than it would have had she not recruited Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund as producer and instrumentalist. In part, that reflects a radical suggestion on Lund’s part. “He’s the one who told me, ‘Stop transcribing, maybe, before the album,’” she said. And that is what she did, though not without withdrawal pangs.

It’s an open question whether freeing herself from the immediate influence of whomever she was transcribing brought her closer to what she wanted to say. Echoes of Rollins, Mark Turner and Don Byas — three favored transcription subjects — are not imperceptible. And the unmistakable qualities of her sound — translucence and a capacious expressivity among them — are in evidence throughout the album.

Likewise in evidence, according to bassist Pablo Menares, a longtime musical partner and friend from Chile who appears on 12 Stars and Visions, is Lund’s influence on a broader level: “This album is different from all the other albums. The core of the music, her own compositions, is so strong. And the collaboration with Lage brought something new to it. He brought his own aesthetic in his approach, sound-wise and rhythm-wise.”

Lund first noticed Aldana as the standout at a jam session in the club Smalls more than a decade ago. His admiration increased after gigging with her in the United States and Europe. Though he originally had doubts about producing her album, he found himself drawn into the project as he offered, via electronic communications, increasingly detailed suggestions about the work as it progressed.

“At some point,” he said, “it seemed, ‘If I’m doing that and also very involved in writing stuff, I guess I’m producing it.’”

Among the challenges, he said, was finding ways to differentiate the tunes. In making changes, he tried to work with restraint. But a few of his changes were substantial, notably the one on “Intuition” in which he accelerated the melody in relation to the harmony to distinguish it from what had been a similarly patterned “The Bluest Eye.”

On “Emilia,” a highly personal piece inspired by visions of the daughter Aldana never had — or, she said, is yet to have — he and engineer James Farber concocted a particularly lush and layered cocktail mixing Lund’s guitar, Sullivan Fortner’s Rhodes piano and Menares’ bass. Amid the potent environment, Aldana’s disarming melody, at once haunting and haunted, survives intact. She first sang it into a voice recorder, she said, after hearing it in a dream.

“It’s the first and the last time that happened,” she said.

Near the end of the track, the melody fades and a child’s voice emerges. It is that of Lund’s older daughter, Leona, who was 7 at the time, singing a melody written by his other daughter, Indigo. Lund recorded the voice on his iPhone, added harmony and ran it through an audio processor, he said, “to make it seem like something you’d hear in a dream, almost in the distance.” The result functions as a coda whose qualities are distinct from the main work, even as they complement it. A pleased Aldana cited it as a testament to her trust in Lund.

“Lage is one of my closest friends,” she said. “I can talk to him for five hours. He knows exactly what’s happening, he knows the story. So he knows to just go for it. He knew that was coming from a dream.”

Lund’s post-production effects are a distinguishing feature of the project. To achieve them, he said, he eschewed digitization in favor of “gizmos” like an analog lo-fi delay pedal. A guitar with an object manually placed in the strings produces a keyboard-like effect intended to add mystery without straying too far into outer space.

“It’s a lot of experimentation, and it’s not something I planned out,” Lund said.

Most of the basic tracks were recorded like a traditional jazz session, with Fortner on acoustic piano, save for two tunes, and the agile Kush Abadey on drums rounding out the quintet. Laid down over two days in May 2021 at the Samurai Hotel studio in Astoria, New York, all but two of the tracks were dispatched in one or two takes. One exception is the 39-second “Intro To Emilia,” a dreamy Menares improvisation that sets up the title piece. It was chosen from several improvisations he recorded.

The other exception is “Los Ojos De Chile” (“The Eyes Of Chile”), which, Lund said, was still being developed as the group went into the studio: “When we did the first take, I don’t know if we all knew exactly what the form was. Everyone had so many notes on their charts.”

Aldana recalled an in-studio atmosphere of creative ferment, which ultimately fed the tune’s evocation of street-level chaos inspired by a social rebellion engulfing Santiago, her hometown. Taken literally, the tune’s title refers to eyes the police shot out during the demonstrations.

To prime herself for the experience, Aldana fell into default mode, awakening at 5 a.m. for four or five hours of early practice. “We were trying to figure out how to play it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m ready, let’s just do it.’” And the group dove in, producing multiple, diverse takes. “Every one sounded great.”

The version that made the cut has sharp-edged melodic contours, rough-hewn interplay among the rhythm section and, above it all, Aldana at her most animated — a whirlwind of anguished runs punctuated by plaintive cries at the top of her horn and, at one point, an ecstatic bellow at the bottom. It seems a rare moment of release.

If “Los Ojos” was the most difficult chart to unravel, the title track was probably the easiest. Originally called “Goodbye Song,” Aldana said, it started life as a demo that came together in two fully formed parts on her upright piano. She wrote the first part in March 2020, marking the beginning of the pandemic and the breakup of her marriage, and finished the second part near the end of 2020. Thoughts of a Blue Note contract were far from her mind.

“I just started writing music because I was going through a deep personal process,” she said.

Barely three minutes long — less than half the length of most of the tracks — the tune, Aldana said, was always intended to be the album’s closer. On it, the hours she spent meditating on, and extrapolating from, the likes of Byas’ “Stardust” are clear. Operating in the instrument’s middle and upper ranges, she weaves tightly wound tonal twists with subtly shifting harmonies to tell the story of the pain and, perhaps, redemption of the year in which the piece was written. It constitutes a fitting final statement.

“It was the beginning and end of a personal cycle,” she said. “It was like an awakening, realizing things about myself. There’s something about being vulnerable that’s a beautiful way to connect with people and know you’re not alone in your problems.”

Acquiring that knowledge has not always been easy, especially during the lockdown of 2020. Throughout the period, she, Menares and Abadey formed a bubble, meeting at her apartment for regular sessions that involved food, talk and — yes — a few tears along with heavy workshopping of the pieces that became 12 Stars.

The camaraderie, she said, was more than helpful. But it may have been the events at which the trio was able to ply its trade for a live audience that got her through the period. And none, in retrospect, was more liberating than a modest gig in Central Park, where, on a windswept day in October of the lockdown year, the trio performed as part of Giant Step Arts’ Walk With The Wind series.

“I remember feeling free,” she said.

Playing with abandon for two hours under a bronze likeness of another storyteller, William Shakespeare, she clearly touched the assembled onlookers. Though Aldana was at the time developing the new pieces, she chose not to air them. Rather, she powered through a set mostly of standards, building her narratives within their classic structures and saving her more elastic self for “Elsewhere.” Feeding off the crowd, she stretched the form as she stretched her body — to near the breaking point, as though physically reaching for notes that, even for a master of the altissimo, were unattainable.

“For me, seeing the people there is seeing the connection, the beautiful thing where we’re all in one moment,” she said. “It’s just music — it’s not culture, it’s not gender, it’s that moment.”

That moment, of course, was gone with the wind. With the artistic highs — and they are high, indeed — come the inevitable lows. And warding off the lows seems destined to be an ongoing affair.

Last summer, she showed up at Bar Bayeux in Brooklyn, where saxophonist and educator George Garzone, whom she described as her “main mentor, really like a father to me,” was playing with his group.

Garzone, under whom she was a star student at Berklee College of Music (from which she graduated in 2010), recalled the night: “She was hanging out. I was talking with her about how she’s setting up her life. She was learning how to be alone.”

Aldana, too, recalled the night — and added a note of existential hope. It had not been easy, she said, but in the months since then, she had become more settled.

“I’m learning how to be,” she said. “That’s part of the musical journey.” DB



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July 2022
Sean Jones
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