Every year there is a Monk International Competition put on by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It’s the most prestigious contest in the world for crowning a young winner who is deemed by a distinguished panel of judges to be the best at his or her instrument within the field of jazz. A crude, shorthand way of describing this is saying that this is the American Idol of serious jazz.
Every five years, the competition selects the best saxophonist; the last time the sax contest was held in 2008, Jon Irabagon took the prize and we’ve been coming across fantastic records several times a year that features him as either leader, co-leader or sideman ever since. I think that Irabagon’s vast abilities would be apparent even if he hadn’t came out on top, but there’s no question that the contest victory opened up some well-deserved doors for him.
That’s what is likely in store for the first female and first South American winner of the coveted prize for 2013, Melissa Aldana. The most immediate spoils of being the victor is an album deal with Concord Music and $25,000 cash. That album from Concord comes out June 24, 2014, titled Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio.
Crash Trio isn’t Aldana’s first record — she made two other ones already — but this one is going to undoubtedly be the one where most jazz fans will get their introduction to her and, in turn, her Crash Trio completed by Pablo Menares on bass and Francisco Mela on drums. For the first time on her records, she’s neither sharing the front line with anyone nor is there a comping instrument such as piano around to help complete the sonic footprint; Aldana is out there on her own, pretty much.
As someone who had been playing the saxophone for nearly the entirely of her twenty-five year life under the tutelage of her father, Santiago, Chile’s Marcos Aldana, this Berklee grad was more than ready for this moment. Over a skin-tight, percolating rhythm, Aldana brandishes not only wide range over “M&M,” but a Rollins-like ability to swing soulfully with effortless precision. Right there I get why stalwarts Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Heath as judges would be all over that kind of saxophone style. And being steeped in the blues as she shows here didn’t hurt, either.
There are several other indications of a well-developed technique and advanced maturity in her approach. “Tirapié,” a Menares tune, is one where Aldana follows up an accurate reading of the melody by exploring all the harmonic possibilities presented by it. She resists the temptation to overplay the standard “You’re My Everything,” but the rich tone articulated with assuredness will stick in your head long after the performance is done. When Menares and Mela devise a swinging groove for “Bring Him Home,” she rides comfortably on top of it, not spoil things by dominating.
“Turning” finds Aldana tracing the bass line of Menares but keeping just enough distance to carry the melody on her own. An advanced composer, she wrote a B section that is connected to the A section via an interesting connecting vista. Mela’s dashes of cymbal and snare go a long way toward filling out the space. The rhythm section sits out at a critical juncture of “New Points” to allow Aldana to articulate deeper on a thought, letting go some lovingly played notes.
What’s also intriguing about this album is what isn’t found on it; despite the heritage of all three players — Mela is from Cuba and Menares is also from Chile — this isn’t a Latin jazz record per se. “Dear Joe” does flash some Brazilian attributes, but so does at least one song on about half of jazz records that come out these days. And Mela’s drumming often does leverage his Cuban roots. However, this group seems more interested in not being constrained by sticking to a certain ethnic style, and their talents by far justify that.
Aldana’s tenor saxophone tour-de-force comes in an a capella take on Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now.” Even here, she does not have to play loud or particularly fast to prove that she understands how to pull out all the melodic shards of a song as beautiful and esoteric as a Monk song.
So ready or not, here comes Melissa Aldana. Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio marks a solid first step in the post-Big Win phase of her young career.