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Melissa Aldana & Crash TrioFirst-ever female winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jaz Saxophone Competition (2010), Melissa Aldana & her Crash Trio evoke notes of a mixture of standards and original melodies, harmonies, and influences via the tracks on this album.

Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio 

(Concord Jazz)

Melissa Aldana – tenor saxophone
Pablo Menares – bass
Francisco Mela – drums

If ever there were a testament to the efficacy of jazz education, it’s Melissa Aldana’s new album with her Crash Trio, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela.  Aldana, the first-ever female winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition (2013), is a Berklee College of Music grad (2009), and she had an early leg up: her first teacher in her hometown of Santiago, Chile, was her father, Marco, himself an esteemed saxophonist. But the 25-year-old Aldana’s method is founded on the bedrock of modern jazz pedagogy: transcription. She has spoken about her painstaking transcriptions of recorded saxophone solos direct to her horn (rather than writing them out), slowing down digital recordings (with pitch correction), and proceeding a measure at a time. She’s made it her business to learn the history of her instrument, and on Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, her sound encompasses everyone from Don Byas and Sonny Rollins to Joshua Redman and Mark Turner. But what’s important is how she’s internalized those influences, so that on the new recording you hear a mature artist with her own voice.

At a Berklee master class in 2013, outlining her transcription method, Aldana played a Rich Perry saxophone solo on Charlie Parker’s “Billie Bounce” (recorded with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). “The way he plays each note is really special, don’t you think so?,”  she asked. The same could be said of Aldana. Moment by moment, her phrasing leads your ear with the varied eloquence of her attack and articulation. Of her contemporary heroes, Turner is most evident – you can hear his influence in her taste for sweeping chromatic lines, from the bottom of her horn to the purest altissimo. Aldana distinguishes herself, though, with an overall full-bodied sound, one that can turn from vibratoless glassy smooth to burred and gruff in the space of a phrase. On her previous two albums, you might have heard a bit of calculation in her runs through the chord changes, but her solos on Crash Trio unfold with serendipity. On bassist Pablo Menares’s “Tirapié,” for instance, Aldana, working with Menares and drummer Francisco Mela’s tantalizingly ambiguous pulse, explores eddies and byways of sound as her horn makes sequential scalar climbs to the anticipated high-note climax.

On Aldana’s previous two albums, individual tracks could sometimes turn shaggy and discursive, almost too exploratory for their own good. But on Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, the mix of standards and originals by all three band members never loses focus. Aldana has a talent for start-stop themes, as on the brawny “M&M” or the more airy and lyrical “Turning.” Mela’s “Dear Joe” has a calypso lilt that brings out the Rollins in Aldana. And when the tenor saxophonist takes on a warhorse like Harry Warren’s “You’re My Everything,” she attacks it like a composer, luxuriating in the melody, exploring its harmonic implications with patient concentration. Throughout, the band shows an adept instinct for creating a satisfying release from Latin grooves and odd meters into walking-bass swing.

Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is the perfect closer, an a cappella workout that allows Aldana to explore every facet of her sound (there’s even a Ben Webster growl in there) while sustaining musicality with a very Rollins-like sense of motivic development. The method might be Sonny’s but the sound, at this point, is all Aldana. The love with which she discovers and releases each note shows how technical acumen can translate to soul. It’s early yet for Aldana but, depending on the trajectory of her career, Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio could establish itself as one of the most satisfying saxophone trio recordings in the discography. (Jon Garelick  Twitter:
@jgarelick
)

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