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Jazz Notes: As the Rising Star of the Tenor Saxophone, the 27-Year-Old Chilean Native/New York-Based Melissa Aldana Delivers Her Impressive New Recording, “Back Home”

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, March 21, 2016

At the young age of 27, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana has already matured into a major jazz star, possessing a singular voice on her instrument and a developing style of leading a trio. That’s evidenced in her new outing, a trio affair, Back Home, with bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert. Remarkably it’s the fourth recording in her young career, which is spotlighted by her winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013 at the age of 24—the first time a woman had won the award as well as the first time a person from South America earned the honor.

A native of Santiago, Chile, now based in New York, Aldana doesn’t blow fiercely on the tenor like so many of her contemporaries (emulating, of course, icons like John Coltrane and veteran saxists such as Joe Lovano), nor does she exhibit any fevered intent on revving up to bebop velocity. Rather Aldana explores tonal expressions that are unique to her own tenor saxophone. She trills on high notes like a flautist, she muses in clarinet clarity, she syncopates to sync up with her bass-drum team, and when she celebrates (as she playfully does on the title tune) she plays a flutter tone and skips into a dance.

It’s thoroughly impressive. Yet Aldana shyly plays down the hype. “For me it’s not about having great technique,” she says. “It’s more about having control of my instrument so that I can honestly develop my ideas, bringing all my influences into my own way of hearing music. I do have a lot of different influences, but I’m still finding my own way by myself into each tune.”

Case in point: Aldana’s alluring cover of the only standard on Back Home: Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” where she starts with a hushed, smoky tone before building in dynamics to fill out the tune. “I played the melody straight up and down, and I connected harmonically with Pablo,” she says, noting that the first time she heard the song was on tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker’s 2001 album Nearness of You: The Ballad Book. “And it was beautiful. I fell in love with it. It’s one of the first songs I learned on saxophone and later my father arranged a version of the tune for a band I had with some of his friends.”

A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston (where she also auditioned and got accepted into the New England Conservatory of Music but opted not to attend so she could explore with fellow students), Aldana received her basic education at home from her father, the renowned Chilean saxophonist Marcos Aldana. Her father’s teaching methodology focused on transcribing music that he thought was important to know. “My father’s approach was so different,” she says, noting that one of the first tunes she learned was by Charlie Parker. “He had us take a phrase, learn it by memory and then play it hundreds of times to get it just right. Imitation is a big part of the process, and it teaches you how to get a good sound on the saxophone. The goal is not just to get the notes, but to be thinking about what Charlie Parker was trying to do with the saxophone.”

Aldana hasn’t been fenced in by emulating saxophonists. She has transcribed music by a variety of musicians who play other instruments, including pianist Bud Powell and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. “I take away so many things from that music,” she says, noting that while she isn’t full-tilt into transcribing these days, she still does it “just for fun. It’s like my way of practicing.”

Coming from Chile into the heart of jazz central began in 2007 when she left home for Berklee thanks to Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, one of the team players in legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s quartet. “They came to Chile to play, and I approached Danilo and asked him to come to one of my concerts,” she says. “I was very young and he was surprised. So we jammed and he was so impressed he invited me to Boston to audition.” (Aldana also notes that Pérez’s wife, Patricia Zárate, was a Santiago saxophonist who had taken lessons from her father.)

Aldana quickly began to meet important people, the first being Emilio Lyons, aka The Sax Doctor, who Zárate called when right before the auditions Melissa’s tenor saxophone broke. She had no money and was anxious, but once Lyons heard her play, he fixed the sax in time. Later when she moved to New York in 2009, she asked Lyons who she should look up. He immediately said veteran sax man George Coleman who had briefly played with Miles Davis in the ‘60s (before being supplanted by Shorter). “Emilio said, George will take you somewhere else,” Aldana says. “So I called him, played the saxophone over the phone and he had me come over to his place and practice. He gave me private lessons and was very supportive.”

Given Coleman’s voluminous style, what was the takeaway for Aldana, who doesn’t even remotely sound like the vet. “I can’t play like him or like Coltrane,” she says, “but I learned a lot from him, especially in his harmonic approach.”

Earlier while still at Berklee, she met alto saxophonist Greg Osby, who became a mentor to her. “Greg taught a Master Class at school and after he was finished I went up to him—that’s who I am, unafraid to get right out there and introduce myself,” she says. “We went for coffee and talked a long time, and we ended up becoming very close friends. Greg even invited me to New York to play a week at the Village Vanguard with him. I was young and scared, but it was a great opportunity.”

That led to Osby offering Aldana the honor of recording for his homespun label, Inner Circle Music, where she recorded her 2010 debut Free Fall and 2012’s Second Cycle—both of which opened ears to her originality as an improvising artist. In 2013, she won the Monk prize judged by such top-tier saxophonists as Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Jane Ira Bloom and Bobby Watson. Bloom told DownBeat: “The thing that was apparent to us was that Melissa was a young artist who, in addition to having embraced a great deal of tradition, has made important steps in developing her own personal sonic vocabulary. We all sensed that from her original music and in her interpretations of traditional material.” The prize led to a recording deal with Concord Records, which released her album with the Crash Trio in 2014. It proved to be many jazz critics’ favorite for the year.

As a result, Aldana has become a go-to saxophonist and is often on the road. When she got ready to record her next album, she slightly changed the trio (Menares, who she has known and played with for more than ten years, stayed and Rueckert took over the drum chair from Crash Trio’s Francisco Mela), she linked up with Wommusic (an artist management agency that has its own label), and she approached the new material as a collective. She composed four tunes while her rhythm section contributed two tunes each, highlighted by Rueckert’s journey-like tune “Obstacles.”

While Aldana can play to the heart of lyrical numbers (i.e., her melancholic, reflective “Before You”), she soars into her own sax world on the more upbeat numbers, two of which bookend the album. The roller-coaster ride through the whimsical “Alegria” that opens the set, is inspired by Shorter’s Native Dancer album (even though he also recorded an album titled Alegria), and is “full of emotion and humanity, which is exciting,” she says.

The finale is another joyful piece, with great trio interplay and Aldana playing the sax in a skipping dance a propos for a party. “Back Home” is not a remembrance of her native Chile, but is a tribute to the saxophonist who first inspired her when she was young: Sonny Rollins. “When I heard his tone on his Sonny Rollins Plus 4 album, I fell in love with it,” she says. “That’s my sound, I thought. That’s the voice I’m hearing in my head. What I love about Sonny is that he’s so in the moment, he’s so honest. I love that about his music.”

Aldana pauses and says, “That’s what I want to incorporate into my music.” With Back Home creating another buzz, she’ll have the opportunity to go on more explorations (she performs at Birdland March 30 and 31). As for her father’s opinion on all this success after less than a decade in the States? “He’s a big fan and very proud,” Aldana says, and then adds. “He is going crazy every day for me.”

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