It’s a cold March Friday night in New York City, but the crowd inside the Village Vanguard crackles with warmth as it engages with the robust music of Melissa Aldana’s quintet. A hallowed basement room that’s generally as quiet as you’d expect jazz’s mother church to be is full of clapping, whistling, cheering, even whooping by the end of the 75-minute set, all of which is made up of material from Aldana’s new album 12 Stars, which has just hit streaming services today (the album’s physical release is scheduled for later in April). This is also the Chilean saxophonist’s first-ever run headlining the Vanguard, which has attracted much younger and more diverse crowds than normal for the club—especially a lot of students, according to one server that night.
You can see the energy course through Aldana on stage. Her generation’s inheritor of the lineages of Sonny Rollins and Mark Turner, she’s a prominently physical player, constantly rocking to the beat; rising on her toes and crouching over in turn as she explores higher and lower tones during solos; leaning constantly into the music. “My knees are so sore!” she exclaims outside the OYO Midtown on Sunday, the last day of her Vanguard run, when we meet to talk about these two major events in her life.
In an Instagram post that same day, Aldana writes that her week at the Village Vanguard “has been one of the most beautiful weeks of my life.” However, she’s intensely aware of the responsibility she has when she’s on that stage. “It’s like a church,” she says. “I was so nervous before playing there … and then I open my eyes on stage and there’s [a picture of] Joe Henderson just looking at me!” Adding to the pressure was the fact that she had never played any of the music live before; 12 Stars was completely written and recorded during the pandemic without being workshopped in front of audiences.
Aldana first went to the Vanguard 12 years ago to see Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner perform. She had just moved to New York, shortly after graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I remember telling myself, ‘Wow, if I ever play at the Vanguard, I want to have a band that is so killing!’ You know? I just want to have something solid to say with a group of people.”
According to her bandmates, she’s been working on that last part for a while. “When I got to New York, Melissa was already making a name for herself and already at the tip of everyone’s tongue,” says Kush Abadey, who has played drums with Aldana since 2018 and previously worked alongside her in an ensemble class led by Ralph Peterson at Berklee. “At the same time, I feel like, although she had a voice of her own, she was still trying to find exactly what she wanted to sound like; exactly what she wanted her music to represent.”
“She’s always been super, super natural melody-wise,” adds bassist Pablo Menares, a fellow Chilean who has been playing with Aldana since 2011 and is her longest-running and most consistent collaborator. “Everybody in the band, we want to play with her [because] it’s such a strong voice.”
For four of the six nights she was at the Vanguard, Aldana was in fact joined by the killer band that plays on 12 Stars: Sullivan Fortner on piano (Fabian Almazan sat in beautifully for the first two nights), Lage Lund on guitar, Abadey on drums, and Menares on bass. The music this quintet creates is dynamic, a study in contrasts. Their first song that Friday night, “Falling,” also the album’s opening number, showed this proof of concept up close. Fortner and Lund balanced lush yet delicate harmonies while Menares and Abadey held the rhythm with a quiet intensity. On top of the band, Aldana performed the kind of solo one might expect an improviser to close a set with: dexterous runs up and down the horn, deep honking tones that require a near full-body commitment. Her brawny, brash, angular solo conjured the best parts of Sonny Rollins’ work, driving against the delicacy of her band; Fortner followed with a solo that mixed crooked chords with a sweet-honey, gospel-soul melody. Seventy-five minutes of this and it’s easy to see why the crowd was on its feet hollering by set’s end.
It was a true moment of accomplishment for Aldana, who, like nearly every human being, suffered her own sea of troubles during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. That journey is encapsulated in the LP’s title track, which she began writing at the pandemic’s outset and then finished shortly before the quintet headed into the studio this past winter. At just three minutes, it’s less a traditional jazz vehicle for improvisation and more like a traditional pop song or classical piece: a statement wholly contained within itself. Triumphant, dream-like, with bittersweet hints of melancholy, “12 Stars” ends with an ease that suggests a deeper kind of closure. It’s a good encapsulation of where Aldana sees her life at the moment.
She named the album and song 12 Stars after the third major arcana (one of 22 major arcana or trump cards) of the traditional tarot deck: the Empress, who wears a crown of 12 stars. Although Aldana identifies with the Empress—a symbol of creation—as representing her “essence,” those dozen stars came to stand for much more. In particular, they stood for her own growth, both during the pandemic and throughout her time in New York. “To me it was crazy, because that tune represents … going through so many major changes. And then I was hearing an interview and I said something like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been in New York 12 years.’ Twelve years, 12 stars, you know?”
Aldana’s career took off in earnest nearly 10 years ago when she won the Thelonious Monk (now Herbie Hancock) International Jazz Competition for saxophone at age 24, fulfilling the dreams of her father, a Chilean saxophonist, who made it to the semifinals in 1991. At the time, she was recording and playing with her Crash Trio with Menares and drummer Francisco Mela, a lean outfit (and part of a proud tradition of saxophonists with “chordless” groups) that Aldana saw as a means to become stronger musically. In a 2020 interview she did with me for CapitalBop, she told me, “The reason why I played trio so many years is because I felt I had to do it in order to grow as a musician. … [In a trio] you are so naked out there and you really have to learn to be strong when it comes to say your story. I wanted to become stronger with harmony; I wanted to become stronger with rhythm; I just wanted to be strong on my own … to look at myself and become freer.”
The results of all that trio work could be heard on Aldana’s 2019 album Visions, which was based around a series of compositions she’d been commissioned to write by the Jazz Gallery, focusing on self-acceptance (a theme that continues into 12 Stars) and the art and life of Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. The record maintains the lean, muscular sound of the trio years but adds bright bursts of color from vibraphonist Joel Ross and pianist Sam Harris. Aldana performed selections from Visions, as well as 12 Stars, with the New York Youth Symphony Jazz at Dizzy’s Club only a day after her Vanguard run ended. The new arrangements by Jim McNeely revealed further layers of depth and texture, marking out what Aldana had built in micro as her first forays into more ambitious composition.
“When I’m playing, I’m just opening my heart to everyone. There’s no colors, there’s no genders, there’s no cultures, there’s just the beauty of the moment.”
12 Stars completes the work she started on Visions, opening up new harmonic territories for her. Part of this is thanks to the co-production from Lage Lund, but a lot of it rests on what happened to Aldana during the pandemic. As the world fell apart for all of us, so did hers, but on a very immediate and personal level. She divorced her husband, fellow saxophonist Jure Pukl, and found herself questioning the direction of her life. You can get a sense of what came next from the album, which she says documents her experiences in 2020: great uncertainty led her to tarot, which in turn led her further inward than she had gone before.
Although Aldana says she relates to tarot’s Empress, the only one of the major arcana explicitly named on her album is the Fool, which is either the first, numbered zero, or the last, numbered 22. “‘The Fool’ talks about initiating yourself in the journey,” Aldana explains. “It talks about the person who likes to do things his way; he’s impulsive and he just doesn’t care. The Fool, on the second arcana—the Magician—grows up … To me, I did feel like the Fool many times in a way where you become … just very self-aware. I thought I knew myself, but not at all.” What she became more aware of, she says, was her sensitivity and empathetic nature, which had been seen as negative traits in the society and time she was raised in. Playing music, for her, is an affirmation of those traits.
“When I’m playing, I’m just opening my heart to everyone,” she explains. “One of the things I figured out is that it’s one of the moments, the precious moments, where I am very present, which is very hard to be in the city. There’s no colors, there’s no genders, there’s no cultures, there’s just the beauty of the moment—and with the audience, the beauty of sharing that moment. So that is why I love playing so much: It is a moment of nothing but everything at the same time.”
Aldana expresses this mindset through the pen on 12 Stars’ “Intuition,” as well as “Los Ojos de Chile,” which she wrote to honor both a 2018 series of massive protests in Chile and her own newly renewed sense of connection to her home country (she recently voted for the first time in a Chilean election). You can also see her proud sensitivity on display whenever she takes the bandstand. After our interview in March, I tagged along to see Aldana rehearse for her show the next day with the New York Youth Symphony Jazz. In between takes, she was constantly checking in on the group of about 18 teenagers, making sure they all felt comfortable with the arrangement, their parts, and the tempo. It felt significant for her to be more vocally concerned about the students than herself.
There’s another side to Aldana’s journey. “The Fool,” she notes (the track on 12 Stars, not the tarot card), starts simple and grows more complex as it develops. This, perhaps subconsciously, reflects how she has deepened her approach to playing since the start of the pandemic. She changed her practice regime—which can be six to seven hours each day—to be more intentional. The three most important elements for her are sound, time, and ideas, and she’ll spend about a third of her practice time on each. For sound, she works on long tones; for time, she works with a metronome. The ideas portion is where she pursued the biggest change.
“Ideas was the part where I used to transcribe. I don’t transcribe as much anymore or at least with the same purpose. When I transcribed Sonny, for example, I transcribed him for four years but I never analyzed what he did. I memorized everything. I never wrote anything down. I memorized hundreds of solos … I just want to keep playing, like ‘How will it feel to play like Sonny?’” Now she devotes time to looking at the way Rollins and other musicians she admires structure their solos. She also puts down the horn more to sit at the ivories.
“I remember right before the pandemic she was commissioned to write a saxophone quartet with the PRISM Quartet and she was also taking harmony lessons … and she was also studying piano,” Menares recalls. He says all of her work came together when she was workshopping the tunes of 12 Stars with him and Abadey in 2020: “She can play piano now; it’s amazing! She went into this whole more complete thing where harmony-wise she can play everything she writes and is more in command of everything. It’s like part of this whole new world she dove into.”
Aldana sees harmony as key to how she wanted to convey her pandemic experience through music. “It’s hard because I don’t have lyrics to express a specific story or emotion,” she explains. “But I think understanding harmony and voice leading well is a way to create emotions. So [with] a lot of the music, the way I’m trying to tell the story is by the tension, the colors, the direction of the music itself.”
Lage Lund had been playing live with Aldana for years before 12 Stars; she turned to him at first to add arrangements to some of the album’s tracks. “Melissa started sending sketches of the things she had written for me to look at,” he says on a call from St. Louis in late March, where he’s on tour with a piano-less version of Aldana’s Vanguard band. “Some of the tunes, like ’12 Stars’ or ‘The Fool,’ were pretty much finished. But other tunes were not fully formed yet. I sat down and spent some time with them; sometimes [I] made some more subtle changes like voicing of the harmony or the forms. Sometimes it would be pretty drastic. I would try and get to the core of each tune and really figure out what that specific kind of sonic world should feel like. … At some point I realized, ‘Well, I guess I’m producing this record.’”
Lund cites his own Terrible Animals as a possible reference point for their work. For that album, Lund’s group cut the tracks in a couple of days, but “after that I did some post-production where I layered some more textures and sonically added other elements. I think she liked that approach.”
“I’m one of his biggest fans,” Aldana says of Lund in a follow-up phone call in early April. “I really love his playing. I just wanted to learn about writing from his own process and what he’d do with my music.” She says Lund added “so many layers of colors” and took the time to “shape the music with much more detail than I could. … He made me aware of a lot that can be added, like counterpoints, inner lines, and inner voices that create a certain emotion.”
Lund cites “Intuition” as a song that he reworked significantly from the sketch he received. “I think I made the harmony move twice as slow and the melody move twice as fast, something like that,” he recalls. “I liked the harmony and the melody but it hadn’t found its true character yet. So I bent some of the elements like that. I [also] wanted to make sure nothing was too rigid, so that we could play them quartet or we could play them duo. They didn’t hinge on a specific orchestration.”
“The music is just in a different place, and it will be the next month and every time we play.”
That was a wise and prescient move, as Aldana has spent significant portions of March, April, and May touring across the United States and Europe without a pianist and in various quartet configurations—sometimes with the 12 Stars band and sometimes with only as much of it as possible. When I spoke to the band members in late March, they all felt a newness to the music, as it continued to evolve in the quartet format. Aldana, for her part, has been grateful to be on the road, to connect with audiences (she seems to attract younger crowds wherever she goes, a healthy thing to see for jazz in places like Ohio or Utah), and to be a part of that evolution: “Since I played New York, I just feel like the music has been growing and growing and growing. We’re all in a mindset where we want to try different things every day. The music is just in a different place, and it will be the next month and every time we play.” By the sound of it, Melissa Aldana will be too.