Anyone who follows Melissa Aldana’s career might recognize generations of influences deep within her playing. Still, the tenor player and composer has managed to merge these contrasting lineages into a distinctive voice. After four records as a leader, myriad awards and recognitions and countless hikes up the steps of “the old” Jazz Gallery with her horn slung across her back, Melissa returns to the first venue that gave her a platform for experimentation when she came to New York from Santiago, Chile nearly a decade ago.
This Friday and Saturday, Melissa premieres Visions for Frida Kahlo, her 2018 commission project for The Jazz Gallery. In her interview, she celebrates the new generation of experimenters, reveals the words that changed the way she views the gig, and discusses her relationship with Frida Kahlo and interdisciplinary art forms.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re known for embracing a range of sound, including some very challenging music. One way you’ve shared how you shed harmony on an unknown tune is through finding common notes in a progression, and I would imagine the entire tune. When you approach practicing an original composition, do you use the same strategy you use when you’re learning an unknown tune or someone else’s music?
Melissa Aldana: Yes, for me it’s always the same process. Either for a standard or an original tune—my original or somebody else’s—I usually approach it as a transcription. When I transcribe, I learn a solo by heart. It’s kind of the same process where I would just try to memorize the melody, then try to memorize the harmony. When you’re more comfortable with it, you can really ‘get started’ instead of thinking about chord changes. So that is why every time I play with somebody else or with my own band, I always try to do everything by heart, because it’s easier for me to express.
TJG: So when you come to the gig having everything memorized, you’re saying it gives you a bit more freedom to make a statement?
MA: Yes. For example, this weekend I was playing with Sullivan Fortner at the Jazz Standard and with him—or with any gig—I just always memorize it, because when I’m not thinking about it, it’s easier for me to try and say something.
TJG: Speaking of live tendencies, when you first came to New York, you had a number of live experiences just trying to get out on the scene and find your voice. Can you talk a little bit about how you got your butt kicked on the bandstand and at sessions, and why getting your butt kicked matters?
MA: Yes, I got it kicked most of time. When I first moved to New York, I used to go to Smalls a lot. I would go to jam sessions a lot. It wasn’t just that I was getting my butt kicked, but I was dealing with my own insecurities. And also, when you’re doing jam sessions, the situation is never ideal. Usually for me it’s one of the most uncomfortable situations, so it really teaches you to be firm with what you want to say, and try to be more about, ‘What can we do so the music sounds more together?’ and less about just going and playing a solo. So my first few years I did go a lot to jam sessions to break the ice and [lose] the fear to just play and be comfortable with the situation.
And I always try to surround myself with people who play much better than me, so that way I can get my ass kicked. Part of why I came to New York was to get better – so I think that getting your ass kicked is a very important part of being in New York. Coming from South America, or places like where I came from, you don’t get these kinds of experiences. New York pushes you to be better. And it’s not just getting your ass kicked, it’s also going to great concerts, playing sessions with great people – younger people, older people – it’s more about the experience.
TJG: And I guess for the first time, really, you’re not the youngest generation, and now you’re calling players from the new ‘generation,’ so that must be a new experience for you, too.
MA: I know, I feel old! I’ve always been the youngest—always. And now I can see these young kids, for example Immanuel Wilkins, who play so great, and they’re so talented and so mature, but at such a young age that it’s actually really inspiring and encouraging. I haven’t seen a generation of so many really strong musicians since I moved here. In three years, they’re going to be on another planet. It’s really cool to see it happen.