Both saxophonist Melissa Aldana and pianist Glenn Zaleski—still in their twenties—have been laden many with accolades over their burgeoning careers. Aldana was the winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013, and has received the National Arts Award in Chile and the Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center. Zaleski was a Monk semi-finalist in 2011, and was Cole Porter Fellowship finalist, attended the Brubeck Institute, and both studied and taught at NYU. Zaleski and Aldana’s album releases bubble with energy, featuring a collaborative approach to composition and fresh takes on musical phrasing.
For their upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Zaleski and Aldana have put together a group of some of their most talented musical peers, including Ben Van Gelder (alto sax), Philip Dizack (trumpet), Rick Rosato (bass), and Craig Weinrib (drums). We caught up with them by phone at their homes in Washington Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, and discussed the origins of their musical friendship, as well as the music they’ve been preparing for the show.
The Jazz Gallery: How are you both doing?
Melissa Aldana: Good, thanks. Just practicing now, actually.
Glenn Zaleski: I’m doing quite well, thank you.
The Jazz Gallery: Could you each tell me a little about your musical life over the last month?
MA: Sure! As you know, I’ve been playing trio for a long time, and have been playing with Glenn for a long time too. These last few months, I thought it would be nice to try to expand what I’m doing and try some new things. It occurred to me to ask Glenn to play this gig at The Gallery and to try this collaboration, with the idea of trying some new musical ideas and expanding what I have been doing compositionally. It would also be a good opportunity to write for more horns. I wanted to have the chance to play with Ben Van Gelder, I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time; same with Philip [Dizack], Rick [Rosato], and Craig [Weinrib]. The whole idea of the sextet is to play with new people, to write for sextet, and to see what will happen. These last few months have been pretty focused on that, just trying to write and see what’s next.
GZ: For the last few months I’ve generally been busy around the city, playing all sorts of different gigs. I’ve spent some time writing for this project: I’ve been looking forward to this project very much, it’s an exciting group of musicians and friends. I tried to put music together that would bring out the best in everybody. Most members of the sextet have produced music for the band, so there’s an interesting group personality. Everyone’s getting an opportunity to present themselves and their original music.
TJG: How did you and Melissa meet?
GZ: We met probably three or four years ago, and we had a lot of mutual friends. I can’t remember the exact situation where we met, actually. Melissa?
MA: I think the first time we played together was actually at The Jazz Gallery? We’d played a few other gigs as well, at The Kitano, and at Smalls as well.
GZ: Yeah. I don’t remember where we met first, exactly, but we’ve always had a good time playing together whenever we’ve had the chance, which has been pretty regularly.
TJG: Were those early gigs sessions, projects, other people’s gigs?
MA: I called Glenn many times to play with my quartet, and we sat in a few times with each other playing duo. Remember, at The Kitano, we did that duo thing?
GN: Oh yeah, of course. It’s been a lot of miscellaneous playing over the last four years, sitting in, playing with each other.
MA: With the trio, now, it feels like I’d like to add some harmony. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start playing more regularly with Glenn, because I’ve always been a fan and liked his music. It seemed like putting on a gig at The Gallery would be a good idea, to force myself to focus on putting the music together. Then, when I proposed a sextet, the musicians came together, and in the last few weeks we’ve started rehearsing.
GZ: We’ve got three or four of Melissa’s tunes, and a few of my tunes. Philip has a few tunes, Ben brought in a tune; it’s really cool. I’ve played some of Melissa’s tunes in a quartet setting before, and it’s great to hear them expanded for sextet. Melissa’s also played a couple of my tunes before, so it’s exciting to hear the whole group play them. Each person has brought their own tunes and with it their own personality, and it’s exciting because we’re all friends and we all really admire each others’ playing and writing. It’s not often enough that an opportunity like this comes up, where we have an open stage to experiment and play some new music together. At the core of it is a respect and admiration for what each other musician is doing. It’s going to be an exciting thing to hear.
TJG: With a sextet in New York, there must be a good deal of logistical hurdles to putting a project together. How do you go about rehearsing?
GZ: We managed to get everyone scheduled together for a few hours last week. That was almost enough time to get through all the music. We’ll have another rehearsal before the gig. As long as we have enough time to run through the music a few times before the show, all of the musicians are strong enough to carry their own weight and put the work in to make the music come to life. Even though everyone is busy, fortunately it doesn’t take that much time to make it come together, so we’ll make it work.
TJG: Can you each tell me a little more about the tunes you brought in for the sextet?
MA: I wrote some originals for The Jazz Gallery, and arranged a few others that I had written over the years. Philip Dizack is bringing a few of his tunes, and we’ve been working on reharmonization on some standards, so we’ll get together soon and finish that.
GZ: I brought a couple of newer tunes. They’re tunes that I’ve played in a trio, and one of them I’ve played with Melissa’s quartet before. One of them is called ‘Table Talk,’ which I wrote last year. I’m from Worcester, Massachussetts, and it’s named after a company that makes handheld pies.
TJG: What flavors?
GZ: All sorts, you name it. Apple, chocolate eclair, blueberry, cherry [laughs]. I recently recorded the tune with the trio, and arranged it for the sextet. I’m happy about how it sounded in rehearsal, everyone’s bringing a lot of fire to it. Adding the three horns was a lot of fun. You can do a lot of damage with three horns, and if you do it right, you can nearly emulate a big-band-esque sound. That’s pretty exciting, because when I’m playing trio, and I play a melody, the melody can have some power, but it’s not the same as having three horns harmonized in a specific way. It’s exciting, new, and rewarding to hear the harmony and the melody in a large, in-your-face kind of way.
TJG: Glenn: In a previous interview with The Jazz Gallery, you discussed how you were trying to play less, to use more space while improvising. Does that sentiment extrapolate to inform arranging for the whole sextet?
GZ: Yeah, it certainly does. In the small amount of large-ensemble writing I’ve done, one thing I have learned is the same sort of lesson that I’ve learned in my playing: Less is more. Two horns playing whole notes can be very powerful if used in the right way. It doesn’t take a lot of ‘writing’ to have a lot of impact, you don’t need the craziest lines or the most advanced harmony. Simple, relatively straight-forward harmony is more powerful than writing a lot of notes and a lot of clutter. It’s the same lesson you learn when playing the piano. You sound like you’re doing more if you play less, with clarity, and that translates into arranging as well. It needs to be careful and deliberate.
TJG: How did the roster for the other four musicians come together?
GZ: I’ve been playing a lot with Craig in my own trio, and I’ve been playing with Rick a lot in another trio that I co-lead. Melissa had played with Rick as well.
MA: Exactly. This was a great opportunity to play more with them. With Philip, too. The first time I heard him was at the [Thelonius Monk] Competition, and I loved his playing and writing.
TJG: How did it happen that you chose The Jazz Gallery to premiere the sextet?
MA: The Gallery has always been a place that welcomes musicians to experiment and try new things. The goal is creativity and expansion. The Jazz Gallery felt like the place where it had to be. Also, I love the acoustics of the place, I love the vibe and the respect that Rio and everyone at The Jazz Gallery have in support of the music, you know? That was the first thought I had when I wanted to put a new project together. And some of the coolest concerts I’ve seen in the city have been at The Jazz Gallery. They always have exciting new things that you don’t get to see that often in other places in the city. Craig Taborn, Kris Davis, Jonathan Blake with Chris Potter and Mark Turner. There are always great acts and amazing musicians.
TJG: Do you have plans for a tour or album release with the sextet after The Jazz Gallery show?
GZ: I hope so. It’s still in the early stages, so maybe a little too soon to say. I’m sure there will be another occasion to play it all again, though I can’t say exactly when. I sure hope so. It’s exciting for the two of us because it’s a bunch of our favorite musicians, playing with each other and checking out each others’ writing. At the core of it is fun, respect, and admiration. Hopefully it’s mutual for everyone [laughs]! It’s going to be a lot of fun, a lot of personality, and a lot of exciting new writing. It’s a fun project, and we can’t wait to share it.
TJG: It’s been great talking with you both! We can’t wait for the show.
GZ and MA: Thank you!
The Melissa Aldana-Glenn Zaleski Sextet performs at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, June 18th, 2016. The group features Ms. Aldana on tenor saxophone, Mr. Zaleski on piano, Ben Van Gelder on alto saxophone, Philip Dizack on trumpeter, Rick Rosato on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.