Tenor of the times: saxophonist Melissa Aldana plays the Twin Cities Jazz Fest

  • Article by: BRITT ROBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2014 - 1:48 PM

After blowing judges away last fall, young saxophonist Melissa Aldana takes aim at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival.

Saxophone phenom Melissa Aldana, who last year won the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition at age 24, will play the Twin Cities Jazz Festival at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Photo: Concord Music Group,

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With vocalist Dianne Reeves touring behind her first record in five years and saxophonist Branford Marsalis continuing to ride a creative wave with his quartet, the 16th annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival boasts two impressive veterans among its schedule of free events in St. Paul this weekend.

But the most noteworthy gig may well occur early Saturday evening, when Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana takes the stage in Mears Park with her Crash Trio.

Last September, Aldana, 25, became the first female instrumentalist to capture the top prize in the 26-year history of annual competitions for young musicians staged by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Among the judges were Marsalis, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Heath.

The award earned her a contract with Concord Records, which is releasing her major label debut Tuesday. “Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio” is a joyous, masterful workout of classic-sounding postbop tunes with a Latin tinge.

Indeed, the disc is strong enough to make it seem as if Concord won the chance to work with Aldana rather than vice versa. It features some of the songs she played when wowing the judges, including an inventively reconstructed cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” and her own song “M&M,” which has a kinetic spunk and subtle calypso groove reminiscent of Sonny Rollins.

Reached by phone at her home in New York, Aldana was tickled by the Rollins comparison.

“I started playing the alto [saxophone] when I was 6 and by age 7 I thought Charlie Parker was the most gifted musician in the world,” she said. “But when I was 12 I heard Sonny Rollins — the album was ‘Plus 4’ — and even though my dad had just bought me a brand-new alto, I told him, ‘I can’t play alto anymore, I have to play tenor.’ I just loved the size of that sound and the humor that Sonny Rollins had.”

“Dad” is Marcos Aldana, one of the foremost jazz saxophonists in Chile. He began teaching Melissa at an early age, just as he in turn was taught by Melissa’s grandfather, Enrique Aldana — whose Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone went to Melissa. She still plays it.

By her mid-teens she was headlining the jazz clubs of Santiago. Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez heard her and arranged for auditions at the New England Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music. Both accepted her; she chose Berklee.

By 2012, Aldana already had two albums to her name, “Free Fall” and “Second Cycle,” on the small Inner Circle label owned by saxophonist Greg Osby. Yet, steeped in tradition, she yearned for a working band to help develop her muse. She and Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, who taught at Berklee and plays with tenor great Joe Lovano, began rehearsing every week about two years ago. The Crash Trio was completed with a longtime friend from Chile, bassist Pablo Menares.

“We interviewed so many bass players and Pablo was just the best,” Aldana said. “It’s great; we get together every week and all speak Spanish. We’re best friends and just a really tight band, too. I get a chance to really experiment and find out all the things I like and don’t like. It’s the band I always wanted.”

All three members contribute compositions to the new album, which seamlessly incorporates Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms, adding to the precocious flair that is a Crash Trio signature.

For whatever reason, there has never been a high-profile female tenor saxophonist in jazz who writes and plays with a bold and distinctive style. Aldana seems destined to fill that void so completely that affixing any gender qualifiers seems moot.

One of the better definitions of jazz is “the sound of surprise.” The sheer delight Aldana takes, and makes, in her search for that sound may ultimately be the best of many good reasons to spread a blanket or unfold a chair as the stars come out in Mears Park this weekend.

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