WBGO Radar

Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio

Melissa Aldana

Melissa Aldana knew exactly what to do when she won the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Competition in September. She headed straight to the studio with Crash Trio, her group with bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela.

“We wanted to find our own way, and the prize enabled us to to this,” she says. “Let’s be clear: we play jazz. But since we’re all Latin Americans, we also bring in new ideas, something fresher.”

The result is Aldana and Crash Trio’s superb debut for Concord Records, which was recorded last December. The trio, and its leader, get star treatment on this disc. But listen beyond the sheen: Aldana and her group play with wisdom well beyond their years.

“That’s been my idea all along – to have a band that will push me and give me one hundred percent,” says the 25-year-old tenor saxophonist. “I think it’s important, especially when you’re young, to find a place where you feel comfortable to try out a ton of ideas, so that you keep growing.”

Like one of her heroes, Sonny Rollins, Aldana’s horn knowledge is encyclopedic: the daughter and granddaughter of saxophonists, she has been playing since age six and professionally since her teens.

Growing up in Santiago, Chile, far from the whirlpools of jazz education, Aldana developed her sound the old-fashioned way: by listening. Melissa evokes Lester, Sonny and Brecker, but her sound is all her own.

Aldana wrote the album’s opening blues, “M&M,” for her bandmates Menares and Mela.

“It has all the the things we like – swing, tradition and the blues, so it’s a good introduction to the group,” she says.

Aldana’s “Turning” and “New Points” point towards the future, with references to the work of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Mark Turner, two of her primary influences as a composer. The songs have multiple sections, none of which repeat.

“I identify strongly with the concept of having every piece of melody tell a story,” she says. “I’ll take a pattern and develop it into a story, just as they do.”

Harry Warren’s “You’re My Everything” is one of two standards on the album, along with Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” which Aldana plays as an homage to saxophonist Joe Henderson.

 “I love ballads - when I write it’s hard for me to imagine melodies more beautiful than these,” she says. “They’re so profound and well-constructed, I feel very connected to them.”

“Tirapié” by Menares, who is also from Chile, pays homage to the rhythms of Santiago street musicians, while “Peace, Love and Music” takes its name from one of the Cuban-born Mela’s favorite expressions. “Dear Joe” was written for Joe Lovano by Mela,  who plays with the saxophonist in the Us Five ensemble.

The album’s launch at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York on June 16 kicks off a frenetic two months of travel for the trio, which will take them to the West Coast, then to Denmark, Austria and France, which Aldana has never visited.

Aldana couldn’t be happier.

“Things have worked out exactly as we had hoped,” she says. “I’m so happy I get to play with the band I want, which gives me the chance to grow as a musician, and to develop my ideas.”

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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