Melissa Aldana

Melissa Aldana Photo
Melissa Aldana, Photo: Harrison Weinstein

Biography

Melissa Aldana (born December 3, 1988 in Santiago de Chile) is a Chilean jazz musician.

Melissa Aldana was born in Santiago, Chile, and began playing the saxophone at the age of six under the influence and guidance of her father Marcos Aldana, also a professional saxophonist. Aldana began on alto, influenced by artists such as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and Michael Brecker, and switched to tenor when she first heard the music of Sonny Rollins. In her early teens, she performed in Santiago jazz clubs and was invited by pianist Danilo Pérez to play at the Panama Jazz Festival in 2005.

Aldana graduated from Berklee in 2009 and moved to New York City to study with George Coleman. She recorded her first album, Free Fall, which was released on Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music imprint in 2010. Her live performances during this time included appearances at the Blue Note Jazz Club and the Monterey Jazz Festival. Her second album, Second Cycle, was released in 2012. In 2013, at the age of 24, she became the first musician and the first South American musician to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, in which her father had participated as a semi-finalist in 1991. The prize was a $25,000 scholarship and a recording contract with Concord Jazz. The Washington Post reported on her win, describing Aldana as "a new awareness of possibilities and directions in jazz."

In addition, Aldana was awarded the Altazor National Arts Award of Chile and the Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center. She has performed concerts alongside artists such as Peter Bernstein, Kevin Hays, Christian McBride and Jeff "Tain" Watts, as well as at many festivals, including the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Umbria Jazz, Vienna Jazz Festival and Providencia Jazz Festival in Chile. She also performed with Jimmy Heath at the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Award Ceremony and was invited by Wynton Marsalis to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In 2012, Aldana formed a band, Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, with Cuban drummer Francisco Mela and Chilean bassist Pablo Menares, a friend from the Santiago jazz scene several years earlier. In July 2014, this band released its self-titled debut album on Concord Jazz, a record deal that was part of Aldana's prize for winning the Thelonious Monk Award. In March 2016, the group released its second album, titled Back Home, on Word of Mouth Music, on which drummer Mela was replaced by Jochen Rueckert.

On her latest album, Visions (Motéma), Aldana combines her work with the legacy of Latina artists who have preceded her, creating an avenue for her own expression. Inspired by the life and work of Frida Kahlo, Aldana creates a parallel between her experiences as a saxophone player in a male-dominated community and Kahlo's experiences as a visual artist striving to assert herself in a male-dominated landscape.

Melissa Aldana travels the world as a leading artist and is a sought-after educator.

Current Album

Melissa Aldana Quintet – Visions

Melissa Aldana (tenor saxophone)
Sam Harris (piano, Rhodes trk 5)
Pablo Menares (bass),
Tommy Crane (drums)
Joel Ross (vibraphone, all trks except 5, 8 & 10)

Buy Album

The glorious freedom to express your deepest self, your truest self, regardless of gender, age, or race, etc. is in abundance on saxophonist/composer/bandleader/educator Melissa Aldana’s fourth recording, Visions (available on Motema Music, May 24, 2019). Influenced by the life and works of Frida Kahlo (who Aldana has loved since childhood), Aldana’s music encapsulates bold, grand, inspiring strokes, improvisation/space, and the finest filigree, which combine to create the richest of sonic tapestries, resonating with an avalanche of humanity. “Frida to me is an artist that embraces who she is through her art. She talks about ugliness, beauty, being a female, religion, politics, love affairs, sexuality, but mostly, accepting herself as an individual. This is a big part of how she engendered me to write this music,” reveals Aldana.

Since beginning her life as a saxophonist at age six (first on alto, then upon hearing Sonny Rollins immediately switching to tenor), Aldana has loved to transcribe her heroes, people like Don Byas and Mark Turner. And, as a young painter she would try to copy the works of her two favorite artists, Frida Kahlo and Oswaldo Guayasamin. By her early teens she was a working musician, and was personally invited by Danilo Perez to play at the Panama Jazz Festival. Aldana graduated from Berklee in 2009 and moved to NYC that same year. At age 24, just after recording her second album, she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, prompting The Washington Post to describe her as representing, "a new sense of possibility and direction in jazz."

Over the past two years, leading up to the recording of Visions, Aldana has been exploring this music through a variety of live contexts across the globe with the Melissa Aldana Quintet. Beginning as mutual admirers of each other’s playing, the Quintet has transformed into a fearless, virtuosic ensemble of explorers, traversing through new musical landscapes composed by Aldana. Working informally as global jazz ambassadors, the Quintet has appeared at Thailand’s International Jazz Day and the Hong Kong International Jazz Day Marathon. They have engaged in an open exchange of musical ideas and artistic inspiration on nearly every continent, having been featured in Madrid, Granada, Perth, Barcelona and the So What’s Next? Jazz Festival in The Netherlands. They have also appeared at mainstay NYC venues such as the Birdland, as well as emerging artist hotspots such as The Miller Theater at Columbia University.

Aldana recently led her quintet through explorations of “Visions: For Frida Kahlo,” her original suite commissioned by The Jazz Gallery as part of its residency program for emerging artists. The suite premiered in June 2018 to immediate and ongoing enthusiasm, and now, Aldana happily and proudly presents Visions, her full-length album of new music on Motema, influenced by Kahlo’s life and works.

The genesis of Visions took place as Aldana was working through some changes in an effort to seek and refine her voice, and raison d'être as an artist. Frida Kahlo began to emerge as a pivotal figure in Aldana’s work and quest for honest representation of self. Aldana elaborates, “Like Kahlo's and Guayasamin’s works, this album became a path for my own identity and expression. My hope is that this contribution is my first of many that will continue advancing my concepts and convictions.”

The composition “Visions” is emblematic of the album as a whole. This movement is the musical representation and the sound of Aldana’s explorations of self-identity that every artist faces, and includes feelings of pain, mistrust, exhilaration and relief. She explains, “experimenting both harmonically and rhythmically with moments of frantic movement interspersed with order and structure is one of the ways I conjure the messiness, struggles and heartbreaking contradictions present in these visions of identity and self-worth.”

“La Madrina” explores the concept of the “Godmother” who appeared to Kahlo throughout her life and gave her the choice of either living with inescapable pain, due to childhood polio, a horrific bus accident, miscarriages, and gangrene (all brutally depicted in perhaps her most famous painting, “The Broken Column”), or dying and being at peace. This music addresses the subtle but important difference between the choices we actively make and the choices we’re led to make, and how all these choices, for better or worse, come to create our individual narratives. “To capture the complexity of our life choices, Kahlo’s struggles and my own personal challenges, I’ve written layers of tension and resolution into the music and tightly arranged certain sections, but I’ve also allowed for sections of extended improvisation and possible spontaneous arranging within the form,” explained Aldana.

“These compositions, and the rest of the music on Visions, deals with challenging questions that bubbled up while I was immersed in Kahlo’s paintings, as well as researching her professional life and personal struggles – the latter of which I feel connected to almost on an intuitive level. In these compositions I aim to create different aesthetics and instrumental soundscapes that represent two specific forces in Kahlo’s life that have had a direct, evolving impact on the direction of my music, as well as my own self-identity.” – Melissa Aldana

Discography

  • Artemis - Artemis, 2020
  • Visions, 2019
  • Back Home, 2016
  • Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, 2014
  • Second Cycle, 2012
  • Free Fall, 2010

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