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Melissa Aldana – Back Home – Word of Mouth

Family, friendship, love; saxophonist Melissa Aldana knows it’s all a part of home.

Melissa Aldana – Back Home [TrackList follows] Word of Mouth Music WOM0006, 52:40 [3/11/16] ****:

(Melissa Aldana – tenor saxophone; Pablo Menares – bass; Jochen Rueckert – drums)

If you don’t know tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana you should. In 2013, she became the first female instrumentalist—and the first South American—to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. She has won accolades from other jazz circles, and was bestowed the Altazor Award, a significant prize given out in her home country, Chile. Her earlier recording, 2014’s Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio (on the Concord label) got lavish reviews and notice. She previously apprenticed with Greg Osby and George Coleman. Aldana’s new nearly hour-long album, Back Home, is her fourth release as a leader and second in a trio format. Over the course of nine tracks she, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert evoke feelings of departures and arrival; of saying goodbye to loved ones and conveying joy for people who have influenced her life; and the importance of family and cultural bonds.

Several tunes are tributes to individuals who have been or continue to be vital to Aldana. She explains the title track (which comes at the CD’s back end) is “related to the first time I picked up the tenor and I heard Sonny Rollins.” While other tracks call to mind Rollins in one way or another, “Back Home” was specifically penned by Aldana about Rollins. Aldana recalls, “He was one of the first reasons I started playing trio, because the freedom that you have within the music, the interaction, the opportunity you have to express yourself and communicate with the other musicians.” The seven-minute piece mirrors Rollins’ usage of a chordless trio, a jazz approach Rollins helped establish. “Back Home” has a deep tone. Not bass- heavy, but rather an intense involvement between bass, drums and sax which draws on both Rollins and post-bop history. There is melodic magic; improvisational imagination; and a wonderful bass/drums duet which slides in.

Aldana’s other three originals also have respective stories. The exultant opener, “Alegria,” (which is Spanish for ‘joyful’ or ‘joy’) is well named. Aldana reveals she composed this on a piano she bought after winning the Monk competition, at a time when she was listening to Wayne Shorter’s 1974 LP Native Dancer. The “Alegria” melodic line was floating in her consciousness, and thus “Alegria” is Aldana’s way to articulate “the feeling I was trying to recreate. That’s why the tune is more upbeat.” While optimism rides throughout the arrangement, there are also instances of subtle shadows, since joy can sometimes be balanced by darker emotions. That same mix of emotional territory can be heard on the rhythmically robust “Before You,” which Aldana wrote when she was geographically separated from her boyfriend. There is a danceable underpinning, even a bit of flamenco, although Aldana cites, “It’s not exactly the flamenco rhythm but I was thinking about castanets.” Rueckert adds some supplemental percussion which echoes the dance-like perception which Aldana hints at in her warmly receptive composition. Aldana’s “Time,” which commences with a rubato style, is her meditation on her life since leaving Chile. There are moments of melancholia, which was colored by Aldana’s recollections of people, places and events. “I was very emotional,” she states. During her creative process, “it was rainy and there was a change of seasons, and I came up with that tune out of nostalgia.” The only cover, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s standard “My Ship,” is also imbedded in Aldana’s personal biography. “I wanted to record it because it brings back memories of me and my dad learning music. The way that my dad rehearsed, the way that he practiced—that’s all a part of what I am right now.” “My Ship” is the record’s most beautiful and straightforward cut, a sublime bass/sax duet which showcases Aldana’s contemplative core.

Back Home is a democratic album. Both Rueckert and Menares contributed two tunes apiece. Menares’ “Desde La Lluvia” has a fluid focus (the title is Spanish for ‘from the rain’). The lengthy cut has a mid-tempo 3/4 swing and a relaxed, poetically melodic construction. Aldana supplies a supple solo which wrenches sensitivity from her tenor sax. Menares’ “En Otro Lugar” (Spanish for ‘in another place’) conjures wistfulness for one’s birthplace. It begins with a moving bass solo intro before gliding into a gentle mood, reminiscent of the longing to hear the voices of loved ones many miles away. Aldana delivers another affecting solo full of intimacy and lucidity. Both of Rueckert’s pieces have multi-layered rhythmic foundations. The fast-paced “Obstacles” includes a complex, repeating rhythmic figure which keeps this nearly seven-minute excursion from being too unassertive. The interaction between sax, bass and drums demonstrates the trio’s innate communication, and Aldana’s soloing again reflects her esteem for Rollins. Rueckert’s “Servant” is a slower conduit for the trio’s swinging stance and lightly restless cadence. You can snap your fingers to this tune, but you’ll need some concentration and attentiveness. If you’re new to Aldana’s music, Back Home is a great place to start, and be assured, we’ll all hear much more from Aldana.

TrackList: Alegria; Desde La Lluvia; Obstacles; En Otro Lugar; My Ship; Servant #2; Before You; Time; Back Home.

—Doug Simpson

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