LIVE: The Melissa Aldana Quartet @ the Sanctuary for Independent Media, 10/21/17
For some reason, it’s extremely rare to find a woman in jazz that plays the tenor sax. Maybe there’s no one single reason for this, but it seems like girls are “directed” at a young age towards the lighter, airier alto and soprano saxes because (as Camille Thurman pointed out) the tenor is not considered to be “a girl’s instrument.” As such, I feel tremendously blessed that I have seen three monster female tenor players in the last two months: Thurman at Jazz at the Lake 2017; Erica Lindsay (with the Jeff “Siege” Siegel Sextet) at A Place for Jazz; and Melissa Aldana at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy.
Aldana has been on my radar since I walked in on the blinding set she and her Crash Trio dropped on the Gazebo Stage at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in 2015; then she knocked me out again last year with another sax-trio show at San Jose Jazz Summerfest. Between those two dates, I played the Chilean native’s WOMMUSIC release Back Home on my radio show “Jazz2K @ The Saint.”
Sax-trio recordings are one of the biggest dice rolls you can make in jazz because, unless the rhythm section is willing and able to pick up all the duties of a traditional instrumental foil, the leader is truly working without a net. No danger of that on Back Home, as bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Ruckert’s stellar musicianship let Aldana explore all musical possibilities with reckless abandon. Menares was part of the new quartet Aldana brought to the Sanctuary last month, and that unit allowed her to explore even further.
Before she did that, though, she participated in a short-but-convivial Q&A session where we learned a little more about what she learned while attending Berklee School of Music, crediting faculty member Greg Osby with pointing her towards the recordings of Don Byas and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Aldana also said the jazz scene in Chile is much different from the time she grew up there, naming guitarist/vocalist Camila Meza as proof of the young Chilean jazzers that are following Aldana out into the world.
When asked about how her experiences affected being a woman in jazz, she returned, “I think music transcends genders and, on the day, the music stands for itself.” That said, she also told us how she loves doing master classes with young girls among the students, so she can show them that being a player in this age can be done.
“Thank you for being here,” Aldana told us at the end of the session, adding with a smile, “And I really hope you don’t get bored!” It was obvious about ten seconds into her first solo on the jumping, unreleased opener “Elsewhere” that boredom was not going to be an option on this evening. After Menares laid down the opening figure and drummer Tommy Crane jumped on it like it had stolen his van, Aldana hit the melody with a big, rich tone and an undeniable sense of possession. The lyrics flowed like a babbling brook as she went deeper and wider into the piece. You could definitely hear a lot of Aldana’s idol Sonny Rollins in her lines, but there was plenty of Melissa Aldana in there, too, blowing away any possibility of derivatives in everything she gave us.
With Mike King’s piano added to the mix, everything Aldana performed during two riveting sets moved to a higher elevation. The not-quite-waltzing “Tragedy” swirled with mystery and sadness, while “Over There” literally got grander as King’s percussive solo ramped up and up. The Menares original “Perdon” followed the hard-charging “Things Have Changed” to become a musical demonstration of the Kubler-Ross thought process, and the night-closer “Turning” (which, Aldana cheekily told us, “is a long tune, so it counts as two tunes…”) had a burning intensity that made Aldana’s last long, low note seem like a sizzling exclamation point.
This was literally King’s first gig with the band, so he can be forgiven if there were points where he seemed to get lost on a solo or two. He also seemed too classical at times, falling back on Gershwin sub-references during “Turning” that were straight out of the Marcus Roberts handbook. On the flip, King brings undeniable power and substantial technique to the table, and the classical approach contributes complimentary colors that might not have come from a more vociferous keyboardist, offering a legitimate contrast to Aldana’s sliding growl.
What’s more, King’s elegant comps and fills allowed Menares and Crane to do some free ranging of their own, letting their respective voices be heard alongside their leader. Menares’ double bass was SUPER phat, and we got every bit of that resonance during his sublime solo on Aldana’s tearful trio take on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” Crane had big shoes to fill behind that drum kit, but he cheerfully brought the noise without a trace of fear throughout the night, eliciting big howls from the crowd with his monumental work on “Over There.”
At the start of the night, promoter/emcee Susan Brink told us how Sanctuary co-founder Steve Pierce asked her if there was any act they really needed to see during last year’s JazzConnect Conference in NYC, and she said, “Uhh, yeah: Melissa Aldana!” That decision led to yet another night of tremendous jazz at one of Greater Nippertown’s best alternative concert spaces. It also confirmed that jazz may not have a lot of female tenor players, but the ones we DO have are here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and they’re all out of bubblegum.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…