Before & After with Melissa Aldana

Resolutely modern, with a classic-tenor core

Walter Smith III image 0
Ashley Kahn

Walter Smith III

For those hearing saxophonist Melissa Aldana live for the first time, it can be an immediately arresting experience. Her tone, broad and velvety, initially brings to mind post-swing masters, an unexpected echo of an earlier era amid the younger, forward-looking NYC scene she calls home. Yet her tunes, performed with her piano-less Crash Trio, reveal her conception to be fluid and remarkably modern, the clarity and looseness in her playing informed by the likes of Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. The balance of these apparent opposites, a confident lyricism holding it together, accounts for one of the more refreshing voices currently working in jazz, and she’s appreciated by generations of listeners. On a recent Sunday evening she sat in with Jimmy Heath’s quartet at the Village Vanguard. The two tenor players comfortably shared the stage, trading ideas on the well-worn melody of “On Green Dolphin Street.”

Aldana may be relatively young, but at 27 she’s been writing her story for a while. The daughter of saxophonist, bandleader and teacher Marcos Aldana, a leading light in the jazz community of Santiago, Chile, Melissa began blowing at the age of 6 and was barely into her teens when she was transcribing extended Sonny Rollins solos. In style and influence, Santiago remains closer to New York than any South American city. She moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee College of Music in 2005, making it to New York City a few years later. She won the Thelonious Monk competition in 2013, and the distinction earned her a recording contract that generated her third album, 2014’s critically lauded Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, featuring bassist (and fellow Chilean) Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela.

In person, Aldana is humble and exceedingly matter-of-fact about her accomplishments. English may be her second language, but she’s lucid in her analysis of musical ideas and in conveying other aspects of her craft. She sat down for her first Before & After slightly nervous and a bit jetlagged, fresh from a three-week European run that included high-profile gigs in Zurich, London and Bern, and a headlining appearance at the Barcelona Jazz Festival. She also conducted master classes there and in Valencia-the student already grown to the role of the teacher.

1. Paquito D’Rivera

“I Want to Talk About You” (Paquito D’Rivera, Cuba). D’Rivera, alto saxophone; Esko Linnavalli, piano; Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, bass; Esko Rosnell, drums; Oscar Valdés, percussion. Recorded in 1976.

BEFORE: I’m not sure who it is. I like it. I hear some Ornette Coleman and a lot of different things, but it’s not a player I’ve checked out that much. The way he’s phrasing is more as a tenor player, with a lot of altissimos, and he sounds like he’s coming from the pre-bop period more than from bebop itself. So I’m a bit confused about who it may be. It sounds like it’s from the late ’70s, I think, because of the sound of the reverb of the bass.

AFTER: Wow, I never heard him play like that. That’s crazy. I liked it, but Paquito didn’t even come to mind! I got the chance to play with him and I’ve checked out his recordings, and this is quite different from everything. I was fairly confused. I definitely can hear the process he was going through-a lot of change [through] the years, from the way he was playing and especially in the way he phrased in the upper register of the horn. There was definitely a big evolution in his playing.

2. Coleman Hawkins

“Samba Para Bean” (Desafinado, Impulse!). Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Howard Collins, Barry Galbraith, guitars; Major Holley, bass; Eddie Locke, drums; Tommy Flanagan, Willie Rodriguez, percussion. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: It sounds a lot like Coleman Hawkins, but I never heard him playing in that style. But he could be playing Brazilian music, because time-wise he was around with the coming of bossa nova. It could be Zoot Sims, and it sounds like later Stan Getz, too, so I’m really between all those guys. I would say Coleman because of the phrasing and the rattle and the way he’s playing the arpeggios.

AFTER: I never heard this. You’re going to have to give me [your copy] [laughs]. Stan Getz was my first thought, and I was very confused but I liked it a lot. [Hawkins] just played the most beautiful melodies, and I think the way he was playing, even though he’s from the ’30s and ’40s, it’s super hip for the time. It’s just the sound and the vibrato make it seem old, but it feels like a lot of what all the modern players are doing, playing arpeggios-their voicings on the saxophone are coming from this.

In my personal experience we never talked that much about folkloric music in Chile, or even any music with Latin-American roots. In that sense Chile may be a bit different from Argentina, Brazil and Peru, which are countries that are very strong with the folkloric music. Probably due to the dictatorship of [Augusto] Pinochet, the Chilean people may have to an extent avoided their own culture. Plus my dad’s a fanatic [for] American jazz, so most of the information we had was directly coming from the States.

Bossa nova found a home in America in the ’60s. Did it eventually ricochet back down to Chile?

Not that I remember, at least not in the way that I grew up. I did know about it from Stan Getz, Hermeto Pascoal. But in high school and my music education in Santiago, there wasn’t much of that.

3. Walter Smith III

“About 360” (Still Casual, Walter Smith III). Smith, tenor saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Taylor Eigsti, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: This is Walter Smith, his [most recent] album. I just love the way he plays with Ambrose; the way they interact and the counterpoint they do is so modern and in the roots of jazz, too. They’re super tight as a band. They definitely have a concept and a way of putting things together.

Walter’s one of my favorite players. There are a lot of great new players, but he’s one that you just hear one note and you know it’s him. The reason I like him so much is because I feel he has a great balance between the tradition and his own thing. It’s important to me to know a lot about tradition, and about what is happening right now, and to find the balance, and you can hear that in his playing very strongly. I can’t remember the name of the ballad, but it’s on his first album. There are no empty spaces, and he’s organic, with a lot of humor. It’s not cold; it’s very warm the way that he plays.

He was one of the players I used to check out a lot through his recordings when I would do the late-night hang with guys at Berklee-just hanging out and listening to Casually Introducing, Walter’s first album. I still check him out a lot.

4. Joe Henderson

“Y Ya La Quiero” (The State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2, Blue Note). Henderson, tenor saxophone; Ron Carter, bass; Al Foster, drums. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: This is Joe Henderson. I can tell right away. He’s one of that kind of player-his phrasing tells who he is. I grew up hearing him a lot. Actually, it’s funny, because I got to Joe Henderson through Michael Brecker; I finally figured out Brecker was coming straight from Joe, the way he played the arpeggios and certain phrases. I think the name of this tune is “Barcelona”? I can’t remember the name.

AFTER: I love this recording. This was one of the first things my dad made me hear when I was growing up. He’s a big Joe Henderson fan, and I did a few transcriptions many years ago from this album with Ron Carter and Al Foster. The trio thing-I love it.

I could have guessed that. Why?

Besides being a big fan of The State of the Tenor and Sonny Rollins, and on the modern side Mark Turner, the first thought I had when I started playing trio was that this is a great way for a horn player-or whoever is playing the melody-to become stronger with the story that you have to say. You have to be really strong about your ideas, about the harmony and about the way you interact with the other players. It’s just so much space, so much freedom, you can really do whatever you want. But not really. That’s what’s great about this recording or much of Sonny’s: You hear everything; you don’t need the piano, and you hear a whole orchestration with what they are playing. When I play trio I need players who are interactive, open-minded and able to just go with whatever it is. Because playing as a trio many times, at least sometimes, we get lost or we go free but we trust each other. So I’m looking for players who can trust what I’m doing, and I trust what they’re doing, and at the same time have fun, so it’s more a conversation than just me playing. When I play with my trio I always listen to them more than [I listen to] what I’m playing; I’m taking ideas from what the bass player and drummer are playing, the energy that they’re giving.

5. Jimmy Forrest

“Bolo Blues” (Out of the Forrest, Prestige). Forrest, tenor saxophone; Joe Zawinul, piano; Tommy Potter, bass; Clarence Johnston, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: I have two names. My first guess is Gene Ammons, and the second, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. It sounds more like Gene Ammons because of just the sound and the soulfulness, the huge sound and the way he’ll play the melody. But the sound on this is thinner than his, so I’m not quite sure who it could be. It reminds me of some Chicago players, the way he sits on the beat. It’s just very organic and melodic and has a nice flow.

AFTER: I never checked Jimmy Forrest out that much. Definitely his way of playing the blues and the feeling of the band reminded me of Chicago. I learn a lot from hearing these kinds of players, going straight to the source, really trying to go behind the notes. The real meaning is not about what they’re playing, it’s in the feeling of the music. In Chile I never got in touch with it as much from albums. I got a lot more conscious about it as I grew up and [through] the experience of living in New York, being able to be around all these players who grew up in the blues. Wynton Marsalis always talks about that-the meaning of the blues, how anyone can play the blues. It’s about how you express your own story, the one only you can tell.

6. Ravi Coltrane

“Leaving Avignon” (In Flux, Savoy). Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Luis Perdomo, keyboards; Drew Gress, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums; the Roots, composers. Recorded in 2005.

BEFORE: I think it is Ravi Coltrane, yes? I haven’t checked him out that much but he has something very particular when he phrases, the way he articulates. I think it’s more from the modern period because of the piano player; it sounds a little bit like David Virelles but I’m not quite sure.

It also definitely sounds very modern because the composition seems to be more about the vibe, the concept of the tune and the flow. I can’t tell who wrote the tune, but from the few times I saw Ravi at the Vanguard I remember him playing some similar things, so that is why it reminds me of him.

AFTER: It’s funny. Because of one little detail I am able to recognize him. He plays two notes and he’s like, ba-da-dote, di-da-dote, and he’s the only player who does that, and I was like, “OK, that’s Ravi.” I saw him a few months ago and the whole vibe of the concert was like a journey, not being able to predict where he was taking the music.

I liked this a lot. When I hear somebody I’m always trying to find the details of what he’s doing, and everyone has something. That small detail is one thing that makes Ravi who he is-to me at least.

7. Gato Barbieri

“Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado” (Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata, GRP/Impulse!). Barbieri, tenor saxophone; Randy Brecker, Bob McCoy, Victor Paz, trumpets; Buddy Morrow, Alan Raph, trombones; Ray Alonge, Jim Buffington, French horns; Howard Johnson, Seldon Powell, reeds; George Davis, Paul Metzke, guitars; Eddie Martinez, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Ray Armando, Luis Mangual, Ray Mantilla, Portinho, percussion; Chico O’Farrill, conductor, arrangement. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: I love this tune-“What a Difference a Day Made.” This is an aside, but the first time I heard Sonny Rollins he was playing this tune, when I was 8 or 9. My dad had the album. The cover was red with his face up close [Sonny Rollins + 3; Milestone, 1996], and this was the first tune on it. And I remember when I heard it I said, “I have to play tenor.” This brought me back to when I was younger.

I think this is Gato Barbieri. It must be him. The way he plays melodies is just very Gato. He’s very romantic and strong and loud and passionate.

AFTER: Gato is a great player and very emotional. [In] each note that he’s playing you can hear him crying deep inside his soul. I haven’t checked him out so much. It just happened that I went in another path and I like to hear tenor saxophone in another way. I definitely need to get into him, and I haven’t seen him live.

8. Chris Potter & the DR Big Band

“Rumination” (Transatlantic, Red Dot). Potter, tenor saxophone, conductor; Anders Gustafsson, Christer Gustafsson, Thomas Kjærgaard, Mads la Cour, Gerard Presencer, trumpets; Steen Hansen, Peter Jensen, Jakob Munck, Vincent Nilsson, trombones; Pelle Fridell, Peter Fuglsang, Uffe Markussen, Lars Møller, Nicolai Schultz, reeds; Per Gade, guitar; Magnus Hjort, piano; Kaspar Vadsholt, bass; Søren Frost, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: [immediately] This is Chris Potter. I think that’s from Imaginary Cities, his last album. I think that every young saxophone player in the world knows Chris Potter. You have to know him, because he’s the hippest and a big influence on every young saxophone player-same as Mark Turner. Also, if I’m not mistaken, Chris was in the Monk competition [in 1991] when Joshua Redman won and my dad was in it as well. [Ed. note: Potter tied for third place with Tim Warfield.] [My dad] freaked out, and ever since he listened to everything Chris was doing, so I grew up hearing him all the time. Dad’s a big fan of Michael Brecker too, so those were the two guys I grew up hearing a lot.

Chris just does some ridiculous things on the saxophone that I don’t hear anybody else doing. I still transcribe a lot of his solos; technically what he’s doing is just really [super]-human. I just transcribed one on “I Wish I Knew,” from a gig at Chris’ Jazz Café [in Philadelphia], with Bill Stewart and Scott Colley, just a random recording a guy gave me, and what he’s playing is so ridiculous.

I like this track. I think it just fits his vibe so much. It let him breathe and tell his ideas really clearly. It also reminds me of the album that Michael Brecker did with Claus Ogerman [Cityscape; Warner Bros., 1982]. In the beginning I was like, “Maybe this is Brecker,” then, “No, it’s Chris,” but it reminds me of this recording. I remember when my dad and I heard that Brecker album for the first time, there was a tune called “Habanera” and it had a similar vibe.

9. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis Big Band

“Trane Whistle” (Trane Whistle, Prestige). Davis, tenor saxophone; Bob Bryant, Clark Terry, Richard Williams, trumpets; Jimmy Cleveland, Melba Liston, trombones; Robert Ashton, George Barrow, Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson (also composer), Jerome Richardson, reeds; Richard Wyands, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass; Roy Haynes, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: That sounds like Eddie Davis. I can tell because of the way he’s phrasing and the way he goes to the upper register and then comes back down. I haven’t heard him in a big band, so that is why I’m still thinking about it. I check out a lot of the albums, like the albums he did with Johnny Griffin, so I know his sound. I like the way he’s definitely a blues player but the way he phrases is very different. In a way he’s more sophisticated-like a lot of jumping around, playing on the higher register, lower register, the whole range of the horn, and altissimos that I don’t hear in other blues players. That’s why I thought of him on this recording.

AFTER: I’ve never heard this. I have to check it out. Eddie, he’s a very special player. There are a few players from that era that when I hear them I can tell right away it’s the players: Eddie, Johnny Griffin or even Charlie Rouse. I just like the way they express ideas.

10. Kamasi Washington

“The Next Step” (The Epic, Brainfeeder). Washington, tenor saxophone; Igmar Thomas, trumpet; Ryan Porter, trombone; Brandon Coleman, organ; Cameron Graves, piano; Thundercat, electric bass; Miles Mosley, acoustic bass; Tony Austin, drums. Plus strings and choir. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: This is a very hard one. I don’t think I’m familiar with this player. It sounds like something modern, but because of the singers in the background it made me think that maybe it was, I don’t know, older than what it is. Not too long ago I did a tribute to Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Music” at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco with a choir, and Miguel Zenón did the arrangement.

This music [we’re listening to] is very spiritual, and I definitely got that feeling from the choir. I definitely get that feeling every time you hear it; it gets even more emotional, but it’s modern at the same time. It has that kind of vibe, but I’m not sure who the saxophone player is. He sounds like an older guy because of his sound and the way he’s phrasing.

Are you into spiritual jazz-Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, that kind of style?

Not as strong as I’ve been into other things. I get really deep into a certain kind of music, then I move on to the next thing instead of checking out a lot of things at once. But I definitely feel that those players were trying to connect in a higher and deeper way with the music, and trying to figure out who they were personally. It was more than just “go and play”-more coming through the heart.

AFTER: That’s Kamasi Washington! I heard about him from some Chilean friends who do reviews, and from a friend who lives in L.A. They really like his music. The last time I was in L.A., [my friend] was like, “He’s very unique and special, so you should check him out.” But I haven’t done it yet.

He is very unique. I haven’t heard any of the new guys writing like this, playing things like this. I think the idea of jazz being socially conscious music was stronger in the early years. I think that when you try to connect music and bring a message to what is happening in the world or whatever, the music is stronger. There needs to be an awareness of what’s happening in the world.

11. Teo Macero

“Out of Loneliness” (Teo, American Clavé). Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Jorge Romero, bass; Frank Hernandez, drums; Badal Roy, tabla; Macero, composer, conductor of string section. Recorded in 1975.

BEFORE: This is hard. It reminds me of Charles McPherson because of the way he plays-he sings in the higher register. It’s very touching when he plays the high notes. Phil Woods and a lot of those alto players had that way of playing, but here he has something special when he plays D and E. I think that is the beauty of this; the art of it is how he moves so pretty, the voice leading. It’s just super nice. It could be Cannonball, but I don’t think so. I’m not sure who it is.

AFTER: Lee’s older on this recording, no? I haven’t heard his later records. I didn’t hear the phrasing much on this one. Maybe I would’ve recognized it if I heard more of his phrasing. But this was so beautiful. It was perfect.

12. Agustìn Moya

“Infinito” (“Live at Thelonious Lugar de Jazz, Santiago, Chile,” YouTube video). Moya, tenor saxophone; Nico Vera, guitar; Lautaro Quevedo, piano; Pablo Menares, bass; Félix Lecaros, drums. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: [at end of head] Was that [Jeff “Tain” Watts] playing drums? [listens to tenor solo] This may be weird, but he sounds like a friend of mine in Chile, Agustìn Moya, because he phrases that way and his sound is like that. But I don’t think it’s him. I’m not sure who this is.

AFTER: Are you serious? Oh, my God. How did you find out about him? That is crazy. I thought it was him because I used to practice with Agustìn when I was really young, and we used to transcribe Branford Marsalis solos from his album Contemporary Jazz, like “Cheek to Cheek.” I was 11 and he was older, maybe 18 or 19, and we used to practice together with my dad. We spent like a whole year transcribing and just competing with each other-healthy competition, but still I was like, “I want to learn that solo first.” So I’m very familiar with him, but wow, you surprised me. He’s one of my closest friends. Also, I could tell it was Félix Lecaros on the drums because he loves Tain and was my drummer in Chile.

Did you enjoy this little exercise?

Yeah. I was a little bit scared but I enjoyed it. It was nice because I thought that I may not be able to recognize some people, but I think I know more than I thought. You pushed me, so it was really good.

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