Written By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Melissa Aldana.
If you were a promising saxophonist, how many miles would you travel to play jazz for a living in New York City? 500? 1,000? If you’re anything like Melissa Aldana, 5,125 miles is no sweat just to be able to live as a professional jazz musician. The 24-year-old is originally from Santiago, Chile where there is a fruitful jazz scene but as it goes, New York is where you get noticed by the right people.
She picked up the alto sax at age six under supervision by her father, Marco Aldana, a prominent Chilean jazz saxophonist. He is credited for being one of the first Chilean musicians to break out, having played the Thelonious Monk Competition and touring internationally. So while its safe to say that the music is in Aldana’s blood, she honed her craft on her own volition, unlike being brought up in a typical stage dad household.
She says about her humble beginnings, “When I turned 6 years old, my father was teaching a lesson and they needed an extra harmony voice so he gave me a saxophone. I played it once and I really loved it so I started playing ever since then.”
Though Aldana didn’t fumble around with high school jazz bands, she got her chops playing around older musicians along with her father. A big break came when she got a full-ride scholarship to Berklee School of Music, a dream for any aspiring musician. At the time though, she wasn’t entirely versed in the English language.
She grew more comfortable with the language during her time at Berklee, “I definitely learned there, hanging out with people all day and talking to them. I took a few lessons at Berklee and I think I just learned speaking to my friends, they corrected me. I read a lot of books too.”
Aldana claims that Berklee has a varied environment of a largely jazz-centric crop of musicians but also aspiring music businesspeople and pop/hip-hop artists. She was without a band at the time but was still gigging around the city with fellow students. The trio she’s in now formed only six months ago, just after she completed her second album, Second Cycle. She says the group just got signed to a ‘nice’ record label and management company as well as a trip down to Mexico to play some festivals.
The way jazz musicians tour is not the way struggling indie or punk bands tour what with the lack of hygiene and sleeping floors. When asked about the whole tour experience of a seasoned jazz trio, Aldana reports a commitment to staying in hotels between performing taking master classes, and travel.
Though her albums in the past were primarily serviced by session musicians, most notably on her first, Free Fall, Aldana says she has a feeling this band will be the one. She says about this new project, “We’re all really into the band; we’ve been playing a lot and we really want to make this happen and grow up as a band making new music so,it looks good.”
Being such a young, female musician, the question remained over whether or not her age and gender made it harder to succeed. The answer? Not really.
What she means to say is that age does not factor in to how much respect one gets in the New York Jazz scene. She says her band mates are respectively 30 and 45 but being in Aldana’s trio is like being in an age vacuum, it really is just an arbitrary number.
“There are a lot of young musicians in New York, especially because there are a lot of schools here. This is a big city for jazz, of course. Also there’s a lot of older people there’s no age for it.”
Her latest album, Second Cycle, refers to a new stage of her life that she’s experiencing right now as a Chilean abroad. She’s had a lot of success doing what she does best, but living in New York City is a struggle for anyone, especially for immigrants.
She says about the significance of the title, “It’s about a second cycle in my life. After I recorded Free Fall I started a new period playing with different people having my own real band in New York. I started writing the music right when I moved to New York so I lived a lot of experiences, met new people, wrote new tunes, so I guess that’s why I named the album Second Cycle.”
She confessed that for the first year and a half of living in NYC she had a hard time because she didn’t know anyone which made it difficult to book gigs. She started hanging out at Small’s Jazz Club though and met a lot of people through the small but well-established, tight-knit community there.
Of the tone of the songs on Second Cycle, Aldana is inspired by the arbitrary atmospheres of her daily life. One song entitled “L-Line” was inspired by a late night ride on the L train.
“I was on the train back after a jam session and it just took a long time,” she tells BTR. “It was a really late night so the feeling of the tune is really crazy like when you go on the subway and you move one way to another and there’s a lot of people, she says of the track. That’s the feeling I wanted to give to the song.”
Much like the jazz classic, “Take the A Train”, Aldana is setting a new standard for restlessness on the MTA.