Melissa Aldana, Visions Review
by Stamish Malcuss
Melissa Aldana was born in Santiago, Chile, where she began playing the saxophone at the age of six, under the influence and instruction of her father Marcos Aldana, who was a professional saxophonist. Her early influences were Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Michael Brecker. However, upon first hearing the music of Sonny Rollins, she switched from alto to tenor saxophone, and the first tenor saxophone she played was a Selmer Mark VI that had belonged to her grandfather. While still in her teens, Aldana was already performing in jazz clubs and was invited by pianist Danilo Pérez to play at the Panama Jazz Festival. For college, the natural choice was the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where her tutors included Joe Lovano, George Garzone, Frank Tiberi, Greg Osby, Hal Crook, Bill Pierce, and Ralph Peterson. After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she recorded her first album, Free Fall, released on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music imprint in 2010. In 2013, at only twenty-four years of age, she was the first female musician and the first South American musician to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. The prize was a $25,000 scholarship, and a recording contract with Concord Jazz. Aldana has released her fifth album as a leader titled Visions. Joining Aldana is vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Tommy Crane.
The cyclic chordal figure opens the album and title track. The piano is a new sound for Aldana, as her projects are usually chordless. Her tone that she projects from the saxophone is spirited and athletic. The doubling of the melody from vibraphonist Ross gives the attack of the line more bite and energy. Harris takes the first solo, it is active and focuses on two themes, one in each hand. A melody separates Ross’ solo and Aldana’s. Aldana’s solo has a shape that is carefully crafted to an arching climax. Her playing is in top form, and she is inspired by the ensemble to reach new heights.
Continuing in the contemporary modern jazz vein inspired by the art and philosophy of Frida Kahlo is the composition “Elsewhere.” With a groove laid down by bassist Menares and drummer Crane, the composition unfolds with modern harmony and smart ostinatos. Never far from anything Aldana plays or composes is her Latin heritage. Aldana’s playing is filled with passion on this track, and the ensemble returns in kind.
Visions was commissioned by New York’s The Jazz Gallery as part of its residency program for emerging artists, which produced Aldana’s suite ‘Visions: For Frida Kahlo.’ The compositions on the album inspired by and dedicated to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo are highly original and show a musician coming into her own voice and style. Combine that laser focus with a technical effortlessness of her horn expression, and you have Aldana’s Visions.