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.
TJG: Jumping a few generations before us, a couple years ago you interviewed your hero the legendary Sonny Rollins. I remember you asking him a number of questions about inspiration, specifically connecting with the instrument and the gig on nights when you’re not feeling terrifically inspired. After hearing some of his responses, how did your perception of inspiration and connecting with your own instrument change?
MA: I think that in a way, it was a wakeup call. One of the things he said was that at the end of the day, we’re professionals. We’re there to deliver a show, so it doesn’t matter how we feel. We have to do it. And that completely changed my mindset. I remember another answer that he gave was usually the moments of inspiration get to him after – I mean the reason why he plays long solos is because it takes him time to get there. Those moments of inspiration are very few. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that when you’re not inspired you don’t sound good, because you’ve been playing your whole life, so you’re able to go there and be professional and deliver a show. But it’s that moment of inspiration that every musician is searching for when you just feel freer and you’re able to connect and everything flows.
And hearing that from someone like him was very inspiring because I feel like musicians, or at least myself, we get way too into our own self—you know, we feel the gig or we don’t feel the gig or whatever—and a lot of times you can get down because the gig wasn’t good. But when you hear that from somebody like Sonny, someone you admire so much, it gives you hope.
TJG: Do you believe that the constant search for inspiration is part of the craft of playing?
MA: Of course. And also it’s about the experience. I remember when he said that to me, because I was dealing with a lot of traveling and just being tired and having to go play the gig when I didn’t get to practice. And when he said that, it made realize it’s true. I’ve been playing 20 years of my life, so what can go wrong? I know how to do this. Maybe I haven’t practiced and I’m not warm or anything, but I just have to be stronger, mentally.
TJG: It sounds like he helped you get out of your head a little.
MA: Yes, exactly—which I think is actually normal for musicians. Especially these days, we get way too into our head and we forget music is supposed to be fun and supposed to free us.
TJG: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that when you first began listening to music, you were moved by what you were feeling and it seems like you were moved by that feeling to want to understand what you were hearing. Can you talk about transitioning from feeling what you were hearing to feeling and also being able to understand what you were hearing?
MA: The way that I learned about music was always by ear—by feeling and then by memorizing. That’s the way my dad [Marcos Aldana] taught me until I turned 15. I didn’t know much theory, I just knew about scales and basic things. But I knew about language, about sound, about intention, about dynamics—everything—just by heart. As I grew older, I started wondering, ‘What’s this that I’m actually hearing?’ Especially when I wanted to start composing music, I knew I would have to figure out, ‘What is all this I have inside me?’ That’s when I really learned to write music. I was so inspired, too, when I got The Jazz Gallery commission because I every time I sit down at the piano, it’s a way for me to start getting to know myself a little better, meaning that I can understand what I’m hearing in the music, and what I like and what I don’t like. It’s not just a feeling; I can put it down on a piece of paper.
TJG: What can listeners can expect from your commission project Visions, and also discuss what inspired you to take on the project?
MA: First of all, Frida Kahlo is a painter that I have looked up to since I was very young. She inspired me, and another painter from Ecuador called Guayasamín. So when I was young, I was really into painting with oil. And I used to do what was very similar to transcribing. I would get a painting that I liked, especially from Guayasamín, and I would just start painting to imitate. I never took lessons or anything, but I learned a lot from Frida. These paintings, I grew up with them from when I was very young. And I wanted to find inspiration of this kind for what would be my suite. I thought that that would be important because oftentimes when I write music, and this is a large project, in the middle I tend to forget the core image—where it’s coming from, where it started from. So, when I got offered the commission, I thought, ‘Okay it’s going to be about Frida Kahlo, it’s going to be this scope and these paintings, and different people that surrounded her life.’ So I wrote it all down on a piece of paper and this is what I had in front of my piano while wrote the suite. That was my reminder. Every time I felt like I lost the core, or the sense of direction, I would go back to that.
As I started writing it, I decided to read her biography. I saw the movie, as well, and I started investigating more about Diego Rivera and about different aspects of her life, and also the relationship that she had with Diego. You know when she was very young she had an accident that kind of changed her whole life, and a lot of the paintings she’s done are related to what happened after that accident. She was ill for the rest of her life after that—always on pain killers. So I wrote each movement of the suite relating to a different anecdote of her life. And actually the last two are inspired by two of my favorite paintings of hers. One is called ‘Roots’ and the other is called ‘Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl.’
The first movement is inspired by her as a woman, as a painter, as a lover, while I was reading the book. And then I have the second movement that is for Diego Rivera who was the biggest love of her life. They had a lot of difficulties; he was never loyal to her. So the second movement is inspired by that. The third one is called ‘The Godmother,’ who is an imaginary character that she had after she had the accident. And The Godmother was the constant reminder that she could choose between dying or living her life with all the pain, with Diego betraying her, with all the drama around her. And then the two movements, as I said, are my two favorite paintings, so the whole suite is just that. I wrote it when I was reading the book, and it was my feelings, my intake of what I was reading about.
TJG: Interdisciplinary art forms, mixing music with visual art or poetry, etc., always have been a part of the global cultural narrative. How does working with visual art and artists inform your playing, particularly as a musician who tried her hand at oil painting?
MA: A lot of the inspiration I got was from reading the book, but it also was from seeing her paintings. When I wrote the suite, I was thinking of her self-portraits, paintings of Diego or the other ones I used. I don’t really know how to explain it; it’s more about the feeling that I get with the actual painting. I saw it, and I tried to write something. I wrote a small motif that began developing, and then when I felt like I was getting lost and I didn’t know what would be the next part, I just went back to see the painting. That was my way to relate to her art – and the only way I thought I could do it.
TJG: We haven’t talked about personnel—this is a huge band. You’ve worked with quintets and sextets before, but this is seven piece.
MA: Yes. When Rio told me about the commission, she said, ‘I really want you to think outside the box and do something that you wouldn’t do regularly.’ So the first thing that came to my mind was I always kind of wanted to develop this sextet that I had with Glenn Zaleski—we played a few times at the Gallery last year—mostly because I wanted learn how to write for three horns, and how to create emotions within the music using different kinds of techniques when you write for those horns. And it’s actually a septet because I have Joel Ross on the vibraphone. So the idea was because I wanted to feel uncomfortable, I wanted to feel nervous, I wanted to feel outside of myself, and I thought that this would be a good moment to do it. It’s my husband Jure Pukl on the alto, Philip Dizack on the trumpet—I’ve been playing with him these past few years and Rick Rosato I’ve known for a while, but the rest of the band is the younger generation: Micah Thomas on the piano, Jeremy Dutton on the drums and Joel Ross. And I’ve been watching this younger generation for the past two years and I’m just so inspired. I’m overwhelmed—I want to try to make music with them. That’s why I called them, and also because I like to rehearse. I like to be prepared for everything I’m doing—I’ve always been a little bit of a control freak. So I knew if I called older musicians, it probably would be harder to rehearse, but when I called Joel and these other guys, they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re here. We can do it. Let’s do it—we want to rehearse.’ So it was a perfect combination.
TJG: And I would be remiss if I did not comment that I recognize the artwork for the Visions poster. Do you want to talk about that?
MA: I was just about to tell you that! Cecile McLorin Salvant did the artwork. She’s amazing, and we’re close friends. We met many years ago, but I know Cecile from tours we’ve done with this all-women band. And I’ve always been a fan not just of her singing, but of her paintings. I love that they are so simple and so smart at the same time—and very identifiable. So I sent her the midi files, and she sent me back three different flyers. And the one with me and Frida like, I’m playing saxophone, and it’s kind of going to her heart is my favorite one. It really represents the vibe of the suite and what I felt at that moment.
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add?
MA: I really want to thank the people from The Jazz Gallery, and Rio, who was one of the first people who gave me a gig in New York and she was always very supportive. Anytime I wanted to play at the Gallery, I was able to bring my sextet and try new things. So it really means a lot for me to have this commission and present this project.
The Jazz Gallery Residency Commission 2017-2018 presents Melissa Aldana’s Visions for Frida Kahlo on Friday June 1, and Saturday June 2, 2018. Performances feature Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone, Phillip Dizack on trumpet, Jure Pukl on alto saxophone, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Micah Thomas on piano, Rick Rosato on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.