"In the Moment" with Melissa Aldana
I first heard Aldana perform at Jazz at the Bistro in St. Louis, Missouri, and I was impressed, to say the least. Hearing great musicians has inspired one of two feelings: the first is an overwhelming desire to sell my horn, and the second is a more productive urge to work harder. When I heard Aldana that Thursday night, I wanted to work harder, to play more, and to love the music as much as she did. Over a year later when I heard her play at Mezzrow Jazz Club in New York City, my feelings towards Aldana and her playing were much the same.
Mezzrow Jazz Club is an intimate place. The first two-thirds of the bar is narrow, with soft, yellow lights, chairs and high tabletops lining the passage into the main seating area. The venue seats about sixty patrons, but when I arrive on a Thursday afternoon, it’s just two: Aldana and pianist (and Mezzrow and Smalls manager) Michael “Spike” Wilner. It turns out that Wilner’s birthday is the next day, and he is celebrating with two nights of concerts at the club, an annual tradition. Aldana is the guest musician, along with bassist Paul Gill. I wave to both of them, Aldana makes quick introductions, and they resume rehearsal; the set is a mix of standards and Wilner’s compositions.
Aldana has been in the United States for 10 years, pursuing a path in music that has been quite rewarding for her. A winner of the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition (the first woman and first international winner), she has maintained a steady and fulfilling stream of local gigs, studio albums, and touring, the latter accounting for most of earnings. But how did she get from being a six-year-old alto player to a critically acclaimed tenor saxophonist at 29?
“My grandfather [Enrique Aldana] was one of the first jazz musicians in Chile in the fifties, and he used to have a really well-known band, and they played dance, rock and jazz music during the fifties and sixties." He passed away when Aldana was only five, and though she has no real memories of him, playing or otherwise, she maintained a tie with grandfather by playing his Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone for many years. She stills plays a Mark VI, just one in better condition.
"My father [Marcos Aldana] is a saxophone player as well, he plays tenor, and he was my mentor since I started playing saxophone when I was around six."
Her father, too, was in the Thelonious Monk competition in 1992, though he didn't make it to the finals. Aldana says her father was a great teacher, but she attributes most of her learning to her deep passion for the instrument.
"I really loved the instrument since I was young. It was me falling in love with the instrument, and even though I didn't understand what I was doing, and I didn't really know much about music, I really liked the feeling of learning about it, and also kind of having a friendship with my father. I felt closer to him when I was taking lessons."
Marcos Aldana had a robust learning program for his musical daughter, which included transcribing records, practicing frequently, and a deep studying of jazz recordings. This habit of analytical listening improved Aldana’s technique and style, and encouraged her to seek out music on her own.
"You know, my father introduced me to a lot of musicians, so there were a lot of people that I checked out because of him. One of the first people that I fell in love with on my own was Michael Brecker, when I started playing tenor. Sonny [Rollins] and Michael Brecker. They were really strong influences for many years, because I transcribed [their music] and checked them out a lot. And then on alto, I think Cannonball [Adderly] and Phil Woods were the people that I liked."
But as far as influences, Sonny Rollins quickly stole the young musician's heart and ears.
"Mostly, I have that very strong feeling with Sonny. I used to play alto for many years, and when I heard Sonny for the first time, I was like 'Oh, I want to play tenor. I don't care about the alto,’” she laughs. “It was the sound; it felt closer to what I was thinking about sound. I don't know how I thought that when I was eleven but I remember that feeling. And I didn't know how to describe it, I just felt really emotionally connected to the way that he was playing you know...[hearing Sonny] it makes me laugh. I feel more organic. In the moment."
Aldana's zeal and dedication for her craft fed into opportunities that helped shaped the next decade of her life, including the opportunity to attend one of the United States’ most prestigious music institutions. In 2005, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez and saxophonist Wayne Shorter were in Santiago, Chile for a concert. Perez's wife, saxophonist Patricia Zarate was a pupil of Marcos Aldana, and Aldana worked the connection to garner his teenage daughter time with Perez. Aldana impressed Perez so much that he arranged for her to audition at both the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. It’s moments like these, preparation meeting opportunity, that have propelled Melissa Aldana’s career.
"Music was everything that I had when I was 17," and Melissa, like most young people that age, was ready to leave home and explore the world. To begin her journey into adulthood and into professional musicianship. With a successful audition in tow, Aldana seized the opportunity to dive into her craft at a new place, the Berklee College of Music. While she had the help of mentors Perez and Zarate, both of whom taught at the College, transitioning to the United States proved to be challenging. Aldana didn't speak English, and lacked the opportunity to learn during her schooling in Santiago.
"I come from a middle class family. In Chile, socially, it is very racial. People that have a lot of money go to school where they learn all the languages. Middle class, they just go to normal school. Chile doesn't have a good education for middle class. And for some reason, my parents never made an emphasis on teaching [me English] because my mom speaks French, and my father speaks French, Spanish, German, and English. That became a big problem for me when I moved to the States, because I wasn't able to communicate, and I wasn't able to understand a lot of situations. I wasn't able to understand the culture, which I still don't understand much. So I was practicing all the time and trying to do my best."
So how did Aldana manage to learn the language and maneuver her way through the strange and confusing American culture?
"I hardly got through that!" she laughs. Aldana took English lessons, read as much as she could, and watched television, especially political news. For Aldana, learning about the history and politics of the United States has been vital in coming to understand American culture, for better or for worse.
"I'm a lot more aware of what it means to be a woman in this society. What it means to be a Latina, what it means to be a person of color." And those realizations, especially in the context of the politics of the U.S., leaves Melissa disgusted at times.
As Aldana worked through her language obstacle, she managed to pass her classes, "barely," she notes, but her playing marked her as one of the star students at Berklee. She often practiced music alone, because she found it hard to keep up with instruction in class. Unfortunately, learning English wasn't the only challenge Aldana faced. Though her father often gave her advice on making her life here in America work, Aldana's parents were not able to support her financially.
"In the beginning it was hard. Like for example, for Christmas or breaks, my friends would all go to their parents and I would just stay there. I felt very lonely for many years."
It took Aldana about eight years to feel good about her life here in the United States, but much of that is attributed to her incredible work ethic.
"I always believe that I would do whatever I can to pay my rent, and just work harder than the rest. You know, three or four times harder. I would wake up early—I worked in a store selling clothes for a while—and then I would come home and practice. Instead of waiting at home just like 'Oh maybe someone is going to call me for a gig," I just did my job. Paid my dues as a musician, and hoped things would become better somehow. And also, I have been smart saving money, which is something a lot of young people are not. And because I didn't have the monetary support from my family, I saved, saved, saved."
Additionally, Aldana took many kinds of gigs to support herself. Whether playing brunches or church services, or teaching, she never thought she was too good for a gig. That attitude has set Aldana up for continued success.
"There's still a lot of things to achieve, but when I was younger, I wanted to make it in NY. Making it in New York meant playing all of the good gigs and becoming 'one of the cats.' As years go by, being successful doesn't mean playing at Carnegie Hall. Success to me means I am happy with what I am doing, and I feel I'm doing the best, and I feel happy as a person. I have a beautiful relationship, I'm healthy, you know, I just feel good about myself. And that for me is more successful than traveling the world. That comes first, taking care of Melissa. And that really helps me to make the other things much better. Music of course, is my whole life, but it's not everything. I'm always looking outside for motivation, for inspiration that will help me to grow as a musician. For me, success in my life will be getting to that point of accepting who you are and embracing it."
And while inspiration is sometimes handy in her playing and composing, Aldana does not rely on it to get work done.
"I think that the hardest thing for me is being able to lose the fear of writing something that sounds bad. Accepting my own ideas. Sometimes I start with melody. Somtimes I'm singing and playing on the piano. Other times I'm inspired by a story or feeling I have. But times I think that the feeling we have of being inspired is too dreamy, in a way, because we don't feel inspired every day. So you can't wait your whole life feeling "oh, I'm going to be inspired, so I'm now going to write a tune. I think that composition is something that you work hard on, and you investigate, you study, and try to do it every day as you practice your instrument."
Aldana tries to write a musical idea daily, and is constantly learning about writing for different horns and studying arranging. Though she is still young—she turns 30 in December—Aldana has taken a little time to consider the her future, both on professional and personal terms. We talk about recruiting more women into jazz, into music in general, and keeping them there. She thinks having female role models will help, but also having mentors, regardless of gender, that are supportive of young women musicians. Aldana also thinks that no matter who you are, you have to be committed to being the best. But, I prod, wanting to know if thoughts of having both a thriving family and career, and the supposed impossibility of it all, have weighed down young women's ambitions.
She says sure, definitely. In July, Aldana married her love of several years. "I met the love of my life 3 years ago, and I want to...have children, and have a life. And those are things that you work out along the way. I know I don't want to miss the opportunity of being a mother. It's about the balance. I may have to work harder or not have time for myself; I want to be a great musician, a great mother, a great wife. I will find a way."
And given Melissa Aldana's track record, I have no doubt that she will.
Check out Melissa's upcoming tour schedule!