LIVE: Melissa Aldana @ A Place For Jazz Schenectady, NY 9/21/2019

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Clubs and concert series may come and go, but for 33 years, A Place For Jazz continues to be the safe (and consistent) space for Greater Nippertown jazz fans. That said, the best times, I’ve had at the Whisperdome have been when APFJ brings in artists who give the outside of the envelope a run for its money – that is, using their talents to stretch the space between “traditional jazz” and the fringe of the genre without breaking the connection. Melissa Aldana fits that description perfectly.

The Chilean tenor sax player was already breaking out of her own safe space before she even stepped on stage: One her 2019 Motema release Visions, Aldana used pianist Sam Harris and young vibes master Joel Ross as foils to create incredible musical pictures inspired by the work of the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. However, Aldana lost both instruments and substituted Lage Lund’s singular guitar sound in their place. What’s more, she’d ditched her longtime rhythm section in favor bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jimmy MacBride, neither of whom appeared on her latest (and, to my mind, best) disc yet.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Aldana was playing with our perspective right from the start of the opener “El Castillo de Velenje”, which she introduced simply as “The Castle.” That is actually the closing track on Visions, but its byzantine structure allowed Aldana to set us up for all the changes she’d put us through later. The start of the piece is uptempo and aggressive, but Aldana started playing with time signatures almost immediately until it was just her and Lund playing soft, slow and creeping while MacBride painted with brushes and tapped the edges of his cymbals when the emphasis was needed. Then we were off on the fast track again as Aldana kept it spare, sharp and bright, bouncing up and down on her toes as she explored the high end of the tenor’s range.

Although Lund plays hollow-body guitar, his otherworldly sound is as far from Wes Montgomery as Pluto is from Paris; it’s steel-edged and muscular without blasting us or deafening us. As a result, tracks like the turbocharged “Elsewhere” and the recurring-dream state “La Medrina” were tougher and lighter at the same time. That dichotomy was also present in the two Lund originals that appeared on this two-set night, the percussive “Ray Ray” and the hard-charging “We Are There Yet.” 

Although these tunes weren’t her own material, Aldana took them both into her heart, milking every drop out of her tenor as she could in order to match the fervor Lund brought to the table. It wasn’t all breathing fire, either, as Aldana and Lund teamed up for a dead-solid-perfect take on Jimmy van Heusen’s immortal ballad “Polkadots & Moonbeams.”

Photo by Rudy Lu

I’ve seen Aldana play live in a sax-trio format, which is like juggling penguins while walking a tightrope that’s on fire. In that setting, the ideas have to come thick and fast and always stay fresh, but Aldana was more than up to the task. With a bright mind like Lund standing beside her, Aldana didn’t have to carry as much of the load and was happy to let Lund, Rosato, and MacBride show off their respective senses of lyricism. That doesn’t mean Aldana was hanging back, though. This music affects her physically, so we see every rise and fall flow through her as she solos, bowling us over with cascades if sounds and visions. Aldana’s overall tone isn’t big and brassy like Dexter Gordon, but her laser-like focus and seemingly-infinite range more than makeup for any lack of “traditional” sound.

Aldana closed out the night with Fran Lanesman’s classic “Spring Can Really hang You Up the Most”, and her announcement of the Great American Songbook member got calls of approval from the crowd. Although the trad-jazz-minded APFJ audience had hung in gamely through the vivid musical montage Aldana and her band projected, there was the sense that the crowd was starting to run out of gas. Even so, Aldana prefaced the piece with a long bout in the clear, deconstructing and reconstructing the heart of the tune with blinding speed. But then she paused, the band came in quietly with MacBride back on brushes, and everything was cool.

Although we are in the second decade of the 21st century, female instrumentalists still have to fight for respect in the very male world of jazz. Melissa Aldana has broken through that glass wall to create her own musical legacy on an instrument women play all too rarely. That’s why the envelope lay stretched and panting on the floor of the Whisperdome as the almost-capacity crowd sent Aldana and her band off with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Pianist Benny Green continues the 33rd season of A Place For Jazz this Friday, October 4th at 7:30p in the Great Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady (aka The Whisperdome), at 1221 Wendell Avenue in Schenectady. To find about more about the concert and the series, go to www.aplaceforjazz.org

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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