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Melissa Aldana Signs to Blue Note, Building on the Legacy of Her Saxophone Heroes

courtesy of the artist

Melissa Aldana has a clear memory of the first Blue Note album that left a strong impression: A Night at the Village Vanguard, which immortalized a 1957 club date by Sonny Rollins. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, the daughter of an accomplished tenor saxophonist, she latched on to the album's message right away.

"I used to play alto, and I changed to tenor when I started getting into Sonny," Aldana tells WBGO. "And I learned so much from that album: it gave me such a sense of direction of how I want to sound and what I’m aiming for as a saxophone player."

That aspiration led Aldana to a place of prominence among saxophonists of her generation — and now, to the Blue Note roster, where she joins peers like vibraphonist Joel Ross and guitarist Julian Lage. Her first album for the label will be released early next year, featuring Lage Lund on guitar, Sullivan Fortner on piano, Pablo Menares on bass and Kush Abadey on drums. The band performs this Sunday at 2 p.m. on the lawn of Jamaica Performing Arts Center, as part of the Downtown Jamaica Jazz Festival.

Melissa Aldana performs with her Crash Trio, including bassist Pablo Menares.
courtesy of the artist
Melissa Aldana with bassist Pablo Menares.

“It’s really a dream come true,” says Aldana of her signing. “There is no other way to put it, especially because of all the meaningful albums I grew up listening to.”

But Aldana, who has some recent experience on the label as a former member of Artemis, also describes her forthcoming debut as a product of its time. “You know, 2020 was such a hard year for all of us — and, for me, especially on a personal level,” she reflects. “And I wrote a lot of music during that period of time. So it has a lot of emotional weight for me as well, this album.”

The recording, which will be produced by Lund, also embodies a spirit of resourceful resilience: “During the pandemic, I moved to Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, where most of my band members live,” Aldana says. “At some point, we were all playing sessions in the park. And I was like, ‘We should do a composer series: form a bubble, meet at my place, and get to play. So that’s how the music was born.”

Aldana's previous discography as a leader includes albums on the Inner Circle, Concord and Wommusic labels. Her 2019 Motéma release, Visions, garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, on a track titled "Elsewhere." Aldana discussed her nomination, among other things, on an episode of The Checkout in 2020; here is footage of her quartet playing "Elsewhere" at Bar Bayeux this spring.

Melissa Aldana was also featured in a recent episode of Jazz United, alongside her successor in the Artemis saxophone chair, Nicole Glover. In a press release, Blue Note president Don Was calls Aldana "one of the foremost musician/composers of her generation,” adding: “Her vibrant artistic vision, mastery of her instrument and her deep groove make Ms. Aldana a perfect exponent of the Blue Note ethos."

For more information about Melissa Aldana, visit her website.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.