Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Saxophone in Front (Part 1)

Tenor saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana has been involved with music from a young age. She started out by watching her father - a jazz saxophonist - teaching students in their home in Chile.  Starting out on alto and switching to tenor after hearing Sonny Rollins (she was given her grandfather's Selmer Mark VI, the instrument she still uses today), Ms. Aldana came to the US to continue her education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, won the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, has been mentored by tenor great George Coleman, and now tours and records with her trio.

Her 4th CD as a leader, "Back Home" (Wommusic), is her second straight release in a trio setting.  Bassist Pablo Menares (who played on her 2014 Concord release) is now paired with drummer Jochen Rueckert (he replaces Francisco Mela).  The title refers to Ms. Aldana returning to the music of Sonny Rollins for inspiration. The lessons of "Live at The Vanguard" and "Freedom Suite" can be heard in how this is a "collective", not just a saxophone soloist with rhythm section.  While the leader contributes 4 compositions, the bassist and drummer both contribute 2 (there's also a lovely tenor sax-bass duo on Kurt Weill's "My Ship").

More than anyone, Ms. Aldana's sound reminds me of Charles Lloyd, the lightness of her delivery, her phrases that sweep and flow over the rhythm section but never overwhelm the piece. Yes, one can hear passages that have heft (her solos on "Alegria" and on the title song) yet this music is more exploratory than exclamatory.  Rueckert's "Obstacles" jabs and darts, the saxophone skating atop stop-start-run of the rhythm section.  Menares' thick bass tines support the saxophone melody on the bassist's "Desde La Lluvia" as the drummer colors the proceedings with his splendid cymbal work.

NY Times
Like the most compelling contemporary music, "Back Home" looks backwards and forwards, never sounding dated or forced.  The best tracks seem to move like dream passages.  "Time" (composed by Ms. Aldana) opens with a bass solo before the saxophone melody enters, like a quiet tango. The bass counterpoint, the brushwork, the saxophone phrases that away from the melody and back again, all that and more make the song so attractive.  The bassist also leads the way in on his ballad "En Otro Lugar", a piece that moves easily forward on Reuckert's gentle yet insistent forward motion.

The title track comes at the end of the album and certainly has the hallmarks of Sonny Rollins in its playful melody, stop-and-go rhythms, and the solid bass lines (reminiscent of the 1957 "Way Out West" classic).  Ms. Aldana swings mightily, Menares does some serious "walking",  and Reuckert propels the Trio forward with obvious delight.

"Back Home" is a treat from start to finish. Melissa Aldana plays with great confidence throughout, displaying both a thoughtful as well as playful side.  Her influences continue to be incorporated into her own "voice" both as a player and composer.  And, with such top-notch associates, this music is certainly stellar.  For more information, go to

Here's the Trio in action from 2015 and Vermont PBS playing "My Ship":

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