By Phillip Lutz for DownBeat
To those who have followed saxophonist Melissa Aldana’s career, her victory as Rising Star Artist of the Year in the 70th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll is no surprise.
The trajectory has been clear from her days as a teenage standout at the club Thelonious in her native Santiago, Chile, to her March debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard. That gig celebrated the release of her Blue Note debut, 12 Stars — and cemented a place in the jazz firmament that may have been, well, written in the stars.
A legendarily hard worker determined to wring the most out of her gift, Aldana has the fire within. She is more focused on the intoxication of creation than the roar of the crowd.
“When I play music, to me if there’s an audience or not, of course there’s a difference — but it’s not going to change the way I’m going to be into the music,” she said.
Like her lodestar Sonny Rollins, who inspired her to switch from alto to tenor at age 12, she has acquired a reputation for intense commitment to her instrument. On the road, her early morning long tones have been known, to the bemusement of her bandmates, to rouse hotel guests.
But for Aldana, that work is a means to an end. “As much as I can practice seven, eight hours a day, that is not a problem,” she said. “But when I’m playing, I want to be in the moment. If not, I’m not going to allow myself to grow and figure out what I have to say.”
Colleagues are some of her greatest admirers. Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, who performed with Aldana in the estimable all-woman group Artemis and did the cover art for 12 Stars and Aldana’s previous album, Visions (Motéma), said that from the first time she heard Aldana play, at the winter jazz festival at Umbria, in Italy, she has reacted “viscerally.”
“When you hear somebody that has a really personal way of playing and communicating, it’s really something,” McLorin Salvant said. “She always puts herself in situations where she’s challenging herself musically. Rarely does she rely on some already cooked ideas she had. She is always painting herself into a corner and getting out of it.”
During the pandemic, Aldana wrote feverishly, documenting musically some of the most personal aspects of her life: the child she has yet to have (“Emilia”), the look she will never have (“The Bluest Eye”), and life upended in her hometown (“Los Ojos De Chile”).
Along the way, she discovered that the tradition of tarot offered some spiritual guidance and artistic inspiration. In a tantalizing suggestion of growing confidence about herself as a player and a person, the album’s title track refers to the stars that adorn The Empress, a symbol of creation. The tune, she said, reflected a personal awakening.
Amid the pandemic fever, occasional gigs provided moments of release. She and the group did livestreams at Smalls and a couple of modest outdoor concerts, notably one in Central Park, where she, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey set up under a statue of William Shakespeare and, for two, uninterrupted hours, blew the top off a set of standards and the odd original.
The audience, a mix of casual park visitors and avid fans, responded with the kind of appreciation that comes with the recognition that, in the modern age, great live music is not a given. What they didn’t know was that, behind the scenes, Aldana, Menares and Abadey were, in regular get-togethers at her apartment, workshopping material that didn’t air in the park — material that ultimately became 12 Stars.
With the core trio augmented by Sullivan Fortner’s keyboard musings and guitarist Lage Lund’s lush lines and inventive electronic touches, the album presents Aldana in a fresh setting, and she responds with new and even shapelier sonic surprises.
During the pandemic, she said, the possibility of recording for Blue Note came to her in a vision. “I thought, ‘Why not? Why not?’” Label president Don Was, contacted by her representative, was captivated by her previous work and signed her without an in-person meeting.
“What is success?” she said. “Success means to be able to have a consistent band where we can play so much that we can develop a concept. Whatever I have to do, I just want to be able to call the guys and we go out for a month and make good money and just take care of the music.”