Melissa Aldana on How Sonny Rollins Made Her Fall in Love With Tenor Saxophone

By the time Melissa Aldana won the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition at the age of 24, she already had nearly two decades of playing under her belt. Credit for this experience is due in part to her father, renowned saxophonist Marcos Aldana, who got her started on saxophone when she was six years old. While Melissa was growing up in Santiago, Chile, he taught her a lot about the love of practicing the instrument, but he also had her transcribing Charlie Parker solos early on and made her learn everything by memory.

“I was lucky, because he would sit down next to me for hours and we would play phrase by phrase, hundreds of times,” she says. “He would focus on details like how he articulates, like how he plays one note after another one. So I learned about sound. I learned a lot about tradition, a lot about language, about what is swing without even thinking about it. And also the fact that I memorized all that. He never taught me how to read or write music; I learned that at Berklee [College of Music]. I think that was one of the best things I got from him, because I developed my ear fully. That was the biggest tool that I have, even to this day.”

Equipped with a solid music foundation that her father helped build, Aldana (who will be at Dazzle on Thursday, March 17, and Friday, March 18) left Chile in 2007 and enrolled at Berklee, in Boston, where she was mentored by tenor saxophonist George Garzone. Two years later, she moved to New York and began apprenticing with saxophonists Greg Osby, who released Aldana’s first two albums on his Inner Circle Music label, and George Coleman, who worked and recorded with numerous legendary jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

Since moving to the United States nearly nine years ago, Aldana has had a lot happen to her, both good and bad, and it’s been an emotional ride as well. She was pondering all that when she wrote the poignant ballad “Time,” from her fourth album, Back Home, which was released last week on Wommusic, and also features bassist Pablo Menares (who's also from Santiago) and drummer Jochen Rueckert. She says the best things to come out of her time in America are the experiences.

“It’s the experience to meet a lot of great people and just be around older people, around young people,” she says. “The experience of playing great jam sessions, very terrible jam sessions, going home crying, like all these ups and downs that make you stronger as a musician. And I think that is why New York is a very hard place for your own ego. You have to learn and be open-minded about a lot of things and just take your time and grow. I think that without those experiences, the practice doesn’t make the music make sense. It’s important to live and go to Smalls, play very bad. You have Chris Potter in front of you. All the frustration is super-positive. I don’t think I would have had a chance to live that in any other place in the world.”

While Aldana says she’s often felt intimidated by other musicians in New York, she says at the same time it makes her more confident. She says one of the important things that she’s learned is to “just accept who you are and take your time, grow as you can, and accept everything – the good and the bad — and just do your best and enjoy the process.”

But every time she gets frustrated when she hears somebody “killing it” on a solo, thinking, “Oh, I can’t do that,” Aldana goes back to the time when she first heard the 1956 album Sonny Rollins Plus 4 at the age of twelve. Although she’d started off on alto saxophone when she was six years old, hearing Rollins made her fall in love with the sound of the tenor saxophone.

Aldana says the title track of Back Home is related to that specific moment when she first heard Rollins for the first time, and it was his sound that immediately resonated with her.

“I just heard a deep voice, a human voice when I heard him,” she says of Rollins. “And something clicked in me. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is my voice. This is what I’m really hearing.' It just deeply connected to that. Sonny had one of the greatest sounds, but then it kind of changed my whole perspective about what sound means. Sound is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about a great musician. So it was like I heard his sound and heard his soul, pretty much. I was so young, so I couldn’t — it’s more related to the feeling more than understanding what he was doing.”

The spirit of Rollins is evident in Aldana’s buoyant phrasing throughout Back Home, especially on the title track and her gorgeous rendering of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s ballad “My Ship,” but at times there’s also a playfulness in her playing, which might come from her frank affinity for the saxophone, even if she gets intimidated by musicians better than her.

“When I picked up the saxophone for the first time, I was so young, so the only thing I had back then was, ‘Yeah, I love this. I really love it,’” Aldana says. “And that’s why I play saxophone. So I always try to go back to that first sensation, why I play the horn. Because I love it. It’s not a sport. There are always going to be better people than you, and that is one of the greatest things, because you can always learn from everybody.”

Melissa Aldana performs at Dazzle on Thursday, March 17, and Friday, March 18.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon