Tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2013 (focused that year on the saxophone) at the age of 24. She had graduated from the Berklee College of Music four years earlier, and as a teenager in Santiago, Chile she had already earned an invitation from pianist Danilo Perez to perform at the Panama Jazz Festival. Which is to say, she did not come out of nowhere. Indeed, in 1991, her dad, Marcos Aldana, had been a semi-finalist in the Monk competition (with first place going to Joshua Redman, second nabbed by Eric Alexander, and third shared by Chris Potter and Tim Warfield—whoa!).
However, as the first South American and the first woman to win the competition (and, still, the only woman to win in a category other than vocalist), Aldana experienced some push back in the community. “Who is this little girl?” was the tone in some circles. And even when Aldana recorded in a trio format without piano or guitar, matched with the incredible drummer Francisco Mela, there was some doubt.
But there can’t be much doubt anymore, with Aldana not only playing with power and confidence as a leader of her own bands but also reacting with class as she was placed in a tricky position. In her wake, reviewers and writers (myself included) have paid more attention to saxophonists such as Caroline Davis, Roxy Coss, Tia Fuller, Anna Weber, and Maria Grand. Visions is her first recording of its kind: with a larger band and a more conceptual in approach, refracting her art through her view of painter Frido Kahlo, who shares Aldana’s heritage as a Latina and her position as a woman in a male-dominated art world. It’s also Aldana’s most subtle and wonderful recording, using four brilliant young musicians (all men, if you’re keeping score) to round her music: rising star Joel Ross on vibes, Sam Harris on piano, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Tommy Crane. She composed all the tunes but two.
Aldana is, naturally, steeped in the tricky structures and complex constructions that mark the New Jazz in New York these days. But she is also known for her organic style, the way her playing develops logically in the manner of Sonny Rollins. Visions hews a line between those two styles, and the result is music that may remind jazz fans of the powerful recordings made for Blue Note in the 1960s—not strictly straight-ahead but also not free-form. Because the ensemble on Visions prominently features Joel Ross’s vibes, it can sound quite a bit like Eric Dolphy’s band from Out to Lunch (with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes) or like the bands Hutcherson himself led for the storied label.
The title and opening track has a tonal but jabbering melody that is often shared by the tenor sax and vibes, with Crane and Menares setting up a clattering groove setting a Latin polyrhythm against four-four time. The theme is urgent but marked by interludes of quiet that then explode out into improvisation. Aldana’s solo is the stand-out here, particularly her use of a sweet upper register that sings with great control. This altissimo has a sharpness but also an airy lightness at once, and she effectively alternates it with an easy swing in the lower register, making her tenor seem like at least two horns at once.
“Elsewhere” works similarly, with the rhythm section busy but working a funky bass-line groove as Aldana and Ross play the hook-filled melody on top, in a ringing unison. Here, the highlight is Harris’s piano solo. Rather than improvise over the changes in a standard way, he begins by worrying a single phrase from Aldana’s theme and, setting up a humming pedal point with his left hand, plays over that lick with intensity before letting the harmonic changes take over. Harris sets up the groove on “La Madrina” using syncopated quarter-note pulses of chords. Ross’s vibes lock into that pulse as well as sharing the melody with Aldana. It is another tune that feels like vintage Hutcherson Blue Note material. “Su Trajedia” uses a similar pulsed groove, a flowing river of notes that curves and stops in spots. Menares plays a solo after the initial statement of the theme that sounds like a good talker—measured but not boring, the logic of a conversation.
Ross colors the date in other ways as well. “Dos Casas, Un Puente” (“Two Houses, A Bridge”) begins with Ross creating a four-mallet cascade reminiscent of Gary Burton, with Crane then adding snare accents that owe a bit to hip-hop. The melody is a nervous, skittering thing, nothing like Burton’s more typically sunny themes, but the ringing harmonies of the introduction guide the soloists toward lyricism. Again, Harris has an interesting featured section with the band cutting out to silence and his piano leading the rhythm section in a new, more power groove, over which a part of the melody returns. Then, piano and drums collectively improvise for the remainder of the track even as Aldana and Ross play that melodic piece quietly. Without making things excessively complex, Aldana has the band exploring interesting alternatives to the old “head-solos-head” structure of the music, even as she evokes some of the great older records that used that format.
Aldana’s band plays some pretty tunes on Visions as well, though they aren’t necessarily ballads in the strict sense. “Abre Tus Ohos” (“Open Your Eyes”) is a quiet theme built on a Fender Rhodes piano sound and Menares’s bass. “Perdon” is a lovely theme by the bassist that sets up a kaleidoscopic piano feature for Harris using both hands to shuffle chords up and down in colors and textures. Then Ross and Aldana improvise in duet briefly.
Ross doesn’t get much solo time on Visions, but “The Search” lets him out of the box early. After the abrupt theme, he takes the band to a quieter place, chattering in a triple meter, and then he develops a line that lifts the band higher and louder, handing things to Aldana who keeps the energy building. Ross is always in service to the larger sound of the band, and Aldana seems to have created a band concept that uses each musician carefully.
There is one standard on the date. “Never Let Me Go” is played with unusual brilliance by the quartet without Ross. Aldana begins, Sonny Rollins-style, with an unaccompanied cadence that uses the melody but also gives her latitude to play in the gaps uses long, unspooled melodic lines. Piano/bass/drums enter for the top of the theme, and the tenor caresses the melody in its lowest register, then a bit higher. Aldana moves outside the standard chord changes at will, bends or glisses her notes by as much as a third, then plays the melody in her upper reaches just as easily. Harris’s solo is a craggier thing, his two hands in a Monk-ish dissonance but still charming. In the end, it is just Harris and Aldana, playing the end of the theme in beautiful repose.
Perhaps the most complete performance on Visions is the final track, “El Castillo de Velenje”. With a busy main theme and a quiet response theme, it takes its time launching the soloists. Aldana uses all her powers to goad the band behind her into excitement, and this time it is she who sets up an even more explosive solo from Ross. He starts low, emerging from beneath her last notes then spins upward in thrilling lurches of melody.
The joy in Visions is in hearing the group interplay, the way that Aldana’s tunes and arrangements are about using the colors and personalities she has chosen for this project. She leads the band, but the music is not necessarily about her as a saxophonist. Her virtuosity is not the star or the point, even though she has it. How this may relate to the album’s inspiration, Kahlo, is metaphorical rather than literal, though of course so many of the compositions here rely on rhythmic complexity that comes from Latin America.
But I hear the inspiration this way: a woman is leading the band and demonstrating her vision. It is generous to the other musicians but also, by example, it demonstrates how none of the music is about the musicians themselves, their prowess or mastery or dominance of the sound. The “vision”—and might we imagine it is a female vision?—is about advancing the music through cooperation and a larger commitment to knowing its history and caring for its future, By creating something lovely to listen to.
Visions ought to expand Aldana’s audience and justify the excitement about her as an artist who has earned her hype, with ease.