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.