Meet Melissa Aldana, Jazz's Next Tenor Sax Great

In focus, in control, deeply determined yet accessible

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Melissa Aldana
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Melissa Aldana at NYC's Le Poisson Rouge, January 2014
By Jack Vartoogian
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Melissa Aldana with (l. to r.) Herbie Hancock, Godwin Louis, Tivon Pennicott and Cadillac's Lee Godown at the 2013 Thelonious Monk Competition finals in Washington. D.C.
By Steve Mundinger

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Melissa Aldana, class of 2009, stood onstage at the Berklee College of Music’s Cafe 939 this past October and watched the radio personality Josh Jackson attentively as he posed a question. “When you came to Boston from Chile,” he said, “were you at all frightened by the proposition of doing all this so far from home?” He was talking about building a career, chasing a mantel, most likely ending up living in a shoebox in New York City. Aldana considered for a second, or at least enacted considering, then said, “Mmh, no.” She flashed a serious smile and explained that she’d always known what she wanted to do, and where a person had to be to do it.

Aldana was there with her Crash Trio to play a live broadcast for WBGO’s The Checkout. Her performance, too, felt sure about its destinations and its means of arrival. The same can be said of her first-place showing at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, held less than a month before the Berklee concert. At the contest, she’d presented a canny selection of uptempo originals and flushed, diligently drifting ballads, earning a $25,000 scholarship and a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. (Her first album for Concord Jazz, featuring the Crash Trio, arrives on June 17.) She is the only woman to win an instrumental tournament in the competition’s 27-year history. At just 25, Aldana seems poised to become the first female tenor saxophonist to join straight-ahead jazz’s most rarefied ranks.

Sometimes Aldana’s level of studious control can threaten to pull her solos into the third person, especially when you sense her dashing off allusions to the tenor greats. She has Mark Turner’s forbearance, and his way of carefully accruing wind power behind a note. Aldana’s tone, a damp velvet that can darken or fade at the edges, betrays the influence of Joe Henderson. She blurs tones and can reshape a beat through nothing but her inflections: the stuff of post-swing-era saxophone greats like Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and the young Sonny Rollins. But she writes all this into her own brand of fiction. The results feel unanticipated, and personal—if laden with strategy.

“I’ve always been really strong about trying to believe in what I like,” Aldana tells me in an interview the following spring at her Washington Heights apartment, when asked how she measures success. She remembers going to Berklee, where she became close with the professor and saxophonist Greg Osby. “There’s a lot of things that he told me that I agree with and I took, but then a lot of things I don’t agree with and I didn’t take. And I think that’s the thing that’s really cool about spending time with a bunch of people: You can get whatever you think will work for you.”

Onstage with the Crash Trio, Aldana has a habit of leaning toward the audience or the drummer, Francisco Mela, and when her eyes aren’t closed she uses them to talk at him. Mela and bassist Pablo Menares play with a steel-nosed, forward tilt that conveys as much about Aldana as her melodies do. She keeps the rhythm section tied to something clean and focused.

So, near the end of a well-paced set at Cafe 939—a handful of Aldana originals, one Menares composition and an unflappable reading of the ballad “You’re My Everything”—it was almost a relief to hear her let the reins fall to someone else. She stopped playing in the middle of the pummeling closer, her own “SP,” and Mela launched into a solo of snare-drum scratching and back-and-forth tom patterns. Then he started to declaim, half-singing and half-speaking a line from a Cuban rumba: “Yo soy como el cisne blanco/Que cuando canta se muere.” Mela played an outburst of free-time hip-hop rhythm and sang the line again, now along with his drums. Aldana cut in with a snaky saxophone phrase here and there; Menares rustled a shaker.

When the band eventually pulled back together around the original melody, it had reached a deeper, feistier zone. And it had proved something: Aldana might be self-sufficient, but she can appreciate a good complement—maybe even a competitor. She’s self-directed, but who knows where she’ll let herself wander?

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Originally published in June 2014

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