A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This week, Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski return to The Jazz Gallery this week with their powerhouse sextet. The ensemble features a fluctuating personnel and an evolving set of original tunes. It’s a crucible for experimentation and musical growth, with members contributing new music and arrangements at each show. Aldana and Zaleski are no strangers to the Gallery, having performed here plenty of times with a wide array of projects. In anticipation of their two-night stint with the sextet, featuring Philip Dizack [trumpet], Alex LoRe [alto sax], Craig Weinrib [drums], and Pablo Menares [bass], we called Zaleski and Aldana to talk about the origins and development of the sextet project.

The Instrumentation

Melissa Aldana: I proposed a sextet to Glenn because it’s a form I love. The idea came from me wanting to hear some different sounds while performing. I’m so used to playing trio, which really pushes you to grow. But now I’m ready to experiment with new things. The sextet is a challenge, an opportunity to get together, talk, and grow collectively. We’ve all been writing, reharmonizing, exploring. Every time I play with the sextet, it’s an opportunity for something new.

Glenn Zaleski: In every new version of the sextet, we’ve each played with each other before, but often only in duo or trio settings. I play with Craig [Weinrib] in my trio, I might play with Pablo [Menares] in Melissa’s band, might play with Philip [Dizack] in Lucas Pino’s nonet, and so on. When there are six people who are all loosely connected but don’t always literally play together, there’s a lot of potential energy. The unique thing about this sextet is having a group of like-minded people who wouldn’t usually be together at the same time. It’s exciting, there’s a lot of energy to explore, and it only ever gets better. The repertoire of the sextet grows as we incorporate more people to try this music.

Connection and Contribution

MA: The first gig Pablo and I did together was when Randy Brecker went to Chile. Somebody set up a tour, and Pablo was there. That was the first time we actually played together, I was fourteen or fifteen. We’ve known each other for many years. There was an age difference, so we weren’t friends when I was young. But when I was at Berklee, he came to Boston to visit, and we became good friends. We’ve been playing in a trio for many years now.

GZ: We’re doing one of Pablo’s tunes, “En Otro Lugar,” a tune I’ve played with Pablo and Melissa a bunch of times. It’s a staple in Melissa’s book. It’s a really beautiful tune, and I’m always happy to play it. I contributed the tune “Fellowship,” from my upcoming record. My first two years of college were at the Brubeck Institute Fellowship program in California, 2005-2007. A decade later, the 2015 fellowship quintet asked me to be a special guest for a concert at Dizzy’s. That was a big honor. I wanted to write something for them to commemorate the occasion, and ended up with something introspective, complex in a slow way. I kept “Fellowship” alive, played it on the record, then decided to arrange it for sextet.

MA: I love Glenn’s playing. He’s one of those players with huge ears. He’s always himself in the sextet, but completely adapts to the situation. Hearing Glenn play, he’s a beautiful musician with a wide sense of space. As a horn player, that’s one of the things I love. So much freedom for me to explore and feel supported. Beautiful harmony, truly organic.

On Alex LoRe

MA: I’ve always wanted to play with Alex. At Berklee, he was another student of my teacher, George Garzone. I was glad to finally have an opportunity to call him for a gig. He’s a great composer and arranger. Alex has a very special, personal sound and approach to the horn. It’s refreshing, different. When I hear him, it makes me want to play better, it inspires me. It’s the same with all these guys, Philip, Craig, Glenn. We’ve all played together, but not all at once. It’s all so inspiring, especially with Alex, since I’ve known him for so many years.

GZ: Alex is a hard worker. He juggles multiple jobs, he’s always writing music and practicing. He’s bringing two tunes: “Antiquity,” which I’ve played in Lucas Pino’s nonet, is always one of my favorite tunes of his. It’s kind of a minor blues. The other one is called “Skyward.” It’s completely new and he wrote it for the show. I played a version of it at a quartet gig with Alex at Smalls, an edgy 5/4 rhythmic tune. We can’t wait to get Alex into the mix with this sextet.

Opportunity, Experimentation, Growth

MA: For the sextet, I’ve been working on reharmonizing standards I love without removing the beauty of the melody. This time, I decided to take a reharmonization of “The Nearness of You” for six horns. I wrote a soli section. It usually takes time for me, but if I get to do one or two arrangements every time I play at The Jazz Gallery, it’s a good experience for me. I try to follow my ear; I took lessons in reharmonization, but at the end of the day, it’s good to be true to what I’m really hearing. I sit down at the piano and try to follow my ear rather than a specific technique. Once I’m done with that, I apply whatever knowledge I already have, and try to make it a little bit better. Most of that knowledge is coming from Berklee, lessons with Miguel Zenón, and recordings I enjoy. I prefer to write everything on piano. You can see everything, hear things differently. Because I’m a saxophonist, I assume I’m going to be thinking melodically. But since I already know the melodic shapes of the tunes I’m reharmonizing, it actually frees me at the piano to pick out things I like and run with them.

GZ: There’s a point in the pursuit of a personal voice where things start to feel more like taking away than adding. I can’t say for sure that it happens this way for everybody, I can only speak about my experience. In my case, it feels like a constant re-realization. You realize something about your playing, your approach, or your voice. You try to make it better, but one day, you realize again that you’re still overplaying, or whatever it might be. We keep learning the same lessons over and over again. I don’t know if it’s possible to pinpoint a single moment, like being twenty-five and out of college, whittling down your education into what means the most to you. Even though I feel like I’m changing tremendously every day, I still feel very connected to the core musical values I felt when I started playing piano. You play, you listen, you decide what’s right, what works, what doesn’t, what stays and what goes. These moments will hopefully continue throughout my career. With things like the sextet, it’s a continual learning process.

The Melissa Aldana/Glenn Zaleski Sextet plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, February 1st, and Thursday, February 2nd, 2017. The group features Ms. Aldana on tenor saxophone, Mr. Zaleski on piano, Alex LoRe on alto saxophone, Philip Dizack on trumpet, Pablo Menares on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.