Star Saxophonist Melissa Aldana On Her Creative Process, The Impact Of COVID-19, And More

Biography

Melissa Aldana to put it simply is one of the premier young saxophonists who has been hitting the scene and really making a name for herself. For those of you who don’t already know or listen to Melissa (in which case I highly encourage you to do ASAP), here are some key details on her background:

  • Melissa was born in Santiago, Chile where she began playing the saxophone when she just was six years old.
  • Melissa learned the saxophone from her father Marcos Aldana, also a professional saxophonist.
  • She started on the alto saxophone and was influenced by artists such as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Michael Brecker. However, once Melissa heard the music of Sonny Rollins, she decided to switch to tenor.
  • Melissa began playing at various jazz clubs in Santiago, Chile and in 2005 was invited by Danilo Pérez to play at the Panama Jazz Festival.
  • After auditioning at multiple music schools in the US, Melissa decided to attend Berklee College of Music, where she had the opportunity to study with Joe Lovano, George Garzone, Frank Tiberi, Greg Osby, Hal Crook, Bill Pierce, and Ralph Peterson.
  • Once graduating from Berklee in 2009, Melissa decided to move to New York City where she began studying with saxophonist George Coleman.
  • Her first album, Free Fall, was released on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music imprint in 2010 followed by her second album, Second Cycle, which was released in 2012.
  • In 2013, at the age of 24, Melissa became the first female musician as well as first South American musician to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition (her father had been a semi-finalist in 1991).
  • Her most recent album Visions, Melissa connects her work to the legacy of Latina artists who have come before her; creating a pathway for her own expression.

Interview

ZS: What was your original inspiration for starting the saxophone?

MA: My father is a saxophone player and my grandfather was a saxophone player as well. I grew up having saxophones at home when I was very young. When I was six, my dad was doing a group lesson and they needed one more saxophone to play some harmony (very basic), so he gave me the saxophone and I ended up falling in love with it. My father was very strict – I used to wake up early and practice 7 to 8 hours and transcribe Charlie Parker solos by heart, but I don’t have any hard feelings with that, I just really remember enjoying the process. I am very thankful at a very early that I was taught how to practice right. My dad played alto and tenor and my grandfather also played tenor but he mainly was a baritone player. I started on alto for many years and my process for learning was very interesting because my father never taught me how to read. My father really believed that it was very important for me to memorize everything and really learn from the transcription – not just the notes, but the concepts, language, and sound.

I would spend hours and hours with him using the radio and the cassette, and then would play one phrase many times and really focus on the articulation and the spirit behind every note. I studied with my father until I turned 15 and my dad thus far taught me about scales, theory, and made me transcribe hundreds of solos by Charlie Parker and Cannonball (but still didn’t teach me how to read). When I was 12, I heard Sonny Rollins for the first time and really fell in love with the sound which made me decide to switch to tenor and I never went back to alto.

After graduating high school, I was accepted to Berklee College of Music. When I got to Berklee, I realized there are other players that want to do the same thing as me and they are all kicking my ass, which was my first experience with other young players wanting to do the same thing as me.

ZS: Who were your influences growing up and what players do you listen to today?

MA: I have transcribed a lot of players growing up such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Lucky Thompson, Michael Brecker, and Mark Turner to name a few. Right now I have been really focused on listening to myself and focusing on the areas I want to improve and further explore.

ZS: As you developed your own sound and technique, who did you try to emulate the most and what was your process?

MA: Every time I had a question about how to play, express myself, and develop ideas, I would listen to someone that I liked and started to analyze their playing. I think I have written out maybe 3 transcriptions in my life. As I have gotten older, I have gone through the process of transcribing and analyzing players over an extended period of time. I transcribed and analyzed Sonny Rollins for 4 years, then went to Mark Turner for about 4 years, and then 3 years on Don Byas, and then checked out Lionel Hampton and Bud Powell.

My process is basically transcribe until you get it. I was not focused on transcribing a lick in all 12 keys, but was more focused on learning the spirit of their playing. For me, after transcribing a player for about 3 years, I got it. This happened to me when I was transcribing Mark Turner. I could hear it and understand what he was playing, but never actually analyzed it.

I really find the process of practicing is very important. For me when I transcribe, I play very slow. I go phrase by phrase, and I memorize it until it sounds exactly the same as the recording. I would have to say that the biggest influences on my sound and technique would have to be Sonny Rollins, Don Byas, and Mark Turner.

ZS: Have you run into any challenges as a woman pursuing jazz, as well as the music scene in general?

MA: First of all, I always wanted to deny that people would treat me different or people were bagging on me at the jam session because I am a woman. To me it was always like, “no, it’s because I can play, not because I am a woman.” I remember going through this process when I was at Berklee and feeling a little bit insecure when I was at jam sessions, and everyone is bagging but then I realized that everyone is bagging everyone anyway.

With that being said, there are people that have paved the way for me to be here today and not experience these things, like Chris Davis, Ingred Jensen, Terri Carrington, and Anat Cohen to name a few.

I will say the most awkward thing for me was when I won the Monk Competition. I started hearing that I won it because I am a female and that made me mad because I was like, “why do I have to feel and play different because I am a female?” or “why do I have to play different because I am from Chile?.”

When I am playing, I am just expressing myself as an individual. I think my role is to try to be the strongest I can and let the music speak for itself in a way that transcends gender and culture, and is focused solely on the music, but I also understand that this is not everyone’s personality. I want to be known because I am an outstanding musician, and without receiving  preferential treatment.

I know many great female and male players who but have not gotten the recognition I think they deserve. I also have seen journalists write about and festivals book various musicians based on their name recognition and not on their music or ability. This simply comes down to not a lot of people truly knowing about the music. For me, I am really focused on pursuing my own path and touring with my band and my own original music because although other events may help grow my name recognition, it needs to be meaningful for me because life is simply too short.

ZS: How have you adjusted to the challenge of COVID-19’s impact on the music industry thus far?

MA: I am in a very privileged situation because I have always been smart about money and saved, so I am fine at the moment, but I do feel bad for my friends who have lost weekly restaurant gigs and are struggling and scrambling to put together different types of content to generate some sort of income.

The first few months I was posting things on Instagram and being present. I noticed a lot of musicians were posting live streams, and for me, instead of posting live streams, I felt it was better for me to take the time to practice, and most importantly take, the time to get to know myself and to deal with some personal as well as family issues I had never addressed.

One reason for putting these things off was that I was traveling quite intensively over the past 2 years;. I think I was in NYC for maybe 5 days total, so I never had the time to really deal with these issues. I feel that since being quarantined, I have taken the time to address what I have been dealing with, and now getting back into focusing on my music and simply playing, which has made me feel much better.

ZS: Once things return back to normal, or as close to normal as they can be, what changes do you anticipate?

MA: I sort of have a tour in September, but how things are going I really doubt anything is going to happen until next year. I think there will be fewer outings, and as for the gigs I have booked, there are only going to be 2 shows because of the social distancing and the limited number of people that can be at any given concert.

For myself, I will say that I am more at peace with myself as a person as well as with people around me, the scene, and my relationships, which has resulted in me simply enjoying playing music even more.

ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?

MA: I am a very good cook. During this quarantine, I have really gotten into cooking and taking the time to explore cooking which is so similar to music in the way you follow a recipe and handle challenges, etc. I am really into long walks and hikes, and also have been working on playing piano to compose music.

ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process, and do you teach your students this process?

MA: With my students, I don’t give them exercises. I teach them how to practice and what it means to achieve something. I share my process on practicing and how you can practice topics such as long tones and scales. You need to think about what you need to practice because it is very personal. You know what you need to work on and your weaknesses. I talk lot about playing voicings, which I find is very helpful because when you practice intervals you can focus on many areas like: how is your time, how is you intonation, how is your ear, how is your balance with your air, how is the jump from one note to the other, etc.

Another topic I like to discuss with all my students is patience. With the metronome set to 40 bpm, I talk about patience and how you need to be able to make the most basic things such as scales and long tones sound and feel good before pursuing odd meters.

Finally, we talk about transcriptions and I explain my process when transcribing, but the student ultimately needs to dive in and figure things out for themselves like I did. My goal is to give my students the tools to think on their own and choose what they want to practice, while understanding what it takes as well as the process.

ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?

MA: I am playing on a Matt Marantz mouthpiece and just switched to playing on Boston Sax Reeds, which are amazing, and the best reeds I have ever tried. I believe the sound is in your head and once you understand what you are looking for, then you can start switching.

At the end of the day, I don’t go crazy with equipment, and typically play on the same equipment for quite some time, but I understand both sides.

Equipment

Website

https://www.melissaaldana.net/