It's Not Too Soon to Call Her Great

Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio roll with a new tour and new album

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By Travis Rogers
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By Travis Rogers

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It’s nice being right once in a while. In a review of Melissa Aldana’s second album, “Second Cycle,” I named it my Jazz sax album of 2012. The maturation of her virtuosity had exponentially increased between her first album, “Free Fall” (2010) and “Second Cycle,” both on Greg Osby’s label, Osby’s Inner Circle Music.

Melissa Aldana is brilliant, talented, skilled, innovative and a delight as a person and a performer. Her father, Marcos Aldana, began teaching her almost as soon as she could manage the instrument at age of six. She says that she switched from alto to tenor sax after hearing Sonny Rollins when she was young. Marcos Aldana is well-known in his own right as a Jazz sax man.
September 2013 saw her winning the Thelonious International Jazz Saxaphone Competition Her performance was breath-taking. She just owned the place. Check out the YouTube video and see for yourself.

Her reward for winning the competition was a scholarship to the Thelonious Monk Institute and a recording contract and a recording contract with Concord Music Group. One would suspect that Concord was considered the winner as much as Melissa.

Melissa and Crash Trio wasted no time at all in getting to the studio. This album, “Melissa Aldana and Crash Trio” is the result. And what a result! It is released during a blistering tour that has taken her from Dizzy’s in New York to the famed Jimmy Mak’s in Portland to San Diego and to points between and beyond—like the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy.

Her trio mates are Pablo Menares, born in Chile like Melissa, who works wonders on the bass. Francisco Mela is the drummer who has won acclaim from the likes of McCoy Tyner and Joe Levano, with whom he has played extensively. Mela adds those astounding Cuban rhythms. The three are highly influenced by the great of modern Jazz but they also bring their own unique perspectives and personalities to the group. The album contains ten tracks, eight of which are originals from the band members. The only exceptions are “You’re My Everything” by Henry Warren and Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now.”

The first track is entitled “M and M” written by Melissa herself. The title is probably a reference to Menares and Mela and the song kicks off with the two of them on bass and drums. They create a groove that reappears at the end of the track.
The highlight of the track, however, is the display of Melissa’s tonality and control. Her first run ends with a groaning fade followed by a superb double-time run. One immediately realizes that her third album—the first contract recording with Concord—is going to put all of her talents and skills on show and the Jazz world on notice that a new giant is taking the field.

“Turning” follows after and is another composition from Melissa. The rhythm section creates a softer but more intricate backdrop for Melissa to explore. Menares vamps a cool groove for Melissa’s return of the melody. His ostinato, which Melissa will double, is a remarkable bass line.

Mela opens a splashy cymbal section which washes the sound behind the long runs of Melissa’s tenor sax. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the performances by her quartets on “Free Fall” and “Second Cylce,” this trio is a fantastic fit for what Melissa is performing and writing right now. This, truly, is her band of the moment.

Henry Warren’s “You’re My Everything” is stunningly beautiful in the hands of this creative and captivating saxophonist. The first two minutes (almost) of the track is solo sax. Her virtuosic runs lay the foundation for the breathless, melodic passages that follow. Menares’ andante solo is warm and welcome, while Mela’s brushwork is a nice feature to this classic piece.

Melissa’s composition “Bring Him Home” swings from the outset. The trio is in the pocket and Melissa fashions a crafty melody as the pushing bass line with snare and cymbals open wide the passages for Mellisa’s splendidly written and executed runs. She has created a modern bebop piece with “Bring Him Home” with it sounding like it did, in fact, come right out of the 1950s instead of 2014. It is an excellent track—just like the others.

Bassist Pablo Menares makes his first compositional appearance on the fifth track with “Tirapié.” The bass solos for the first 1:45 before being joined by Mela’s drums, then Melissa. Menares is well-respected in the NYC club scene and is well-known in Jazz and Latin genres.

The melodic line is well-written for the sax and well-explored by Melissa. Her “bent-note” approaches to some of the passages are fascinating. The soft and airy treatment is mesmerizing.
“Peace, Love and Music” is a study in rhythms of the Afro-Cuban sort and is written by drummer Francisco Mela. Mela was born in Cuba and is a graduate of Berklee School of Music. His complex rhythmic exposition continues even after sax and bass join in around the 2:00 mark. Melissa’s phrasing is a little more straightforward on this, the sixth, track. The melody is beautiful partnership with the rhythm as the melody becomes the support to the rhythm.

In a percussionist’s mind, the rhythm is the focus and Jazz is the greatest form for that, as everyone knows. This was surely Mela’s thinking as well, as he has composed a splendid foray into the intricacies of Latin rhythms.

“Perdón” is another Menares piece. It is well-rounded and contains interesting drum choices and a slow walking bass that accompanies Melissa’s measured step. Her sweet intonations are in fine company with the drums and drums. All three trio members constantly remind the listener just how good each musician is at their instrument and at composing.

“New Points” is written by Melissa and may be the most lyrical piece on the whole album with a hint of Rimsky-Korsakov thrown into the middle section. The rhythmic rapport is solid between Mela and Menares as they talk to each other in the background. There is a bossa nova feel at some points as the bass and sax sing in counterpoint.

The ninth track is Mela’s “Dear Joe.” The Latin swing and whimsical phrasing make this track one of the most light-hearted on the album. There is hint of Spyro Gyra in the sound and that is a compliment. There are few things more delectable than a Caribbean sound with the saxophone. Melissa and Crash nail the sound and the feel perfectly. Menares’ solo is an exciting trip and Mela’s drumming is spot-on.

The album closes with Melissa’s most intricate and intimate—not to mention inspired—playing on “Ask Me Now” by Thelonious Monk. It is a completely solo track for Melissa and it is wonderful. With the greatest respect to Menares and Mela, the unmitigated delicacy and exactness of Melissa’s delivery is not shadowed or missed in the naked sound of only Melissa.
Any Monk composition is something amazing but Melissa transforms it into something truly astonishing.

The album is a fitting celebration of Melissa Aldana’s conquest of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz competition. The energy and joy coming off of the heady experience are audibly captured by the Sears Sound Studio, admirably recorded and mixed there by James Farber. What was created and recorded on this album was caught during the full swing of their on-going tour.

It is a great hope that her rapid growth will be constantly chronicled with frequent studio and concert recordings. In other words, it is impossible to get enough of what Melissa Aldana offers.

She has been called “an old soul” and I agree. She is already creating her legend and—even after only three albums—she can be called great. She owns the future.

Visit Melissa Aldana's web site at: www.melissaaldana.com

Purchase Melissa Aldana and Crash Trio at Amazon.com.

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Travis Rogers