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As her artwork so vividly shows, Frida Kahlo was well acquainted with tragedy long before her early death in 1954 at the age of 47. At just six years old, she survived a bout with polio that left her with a disability in one leg; at 18 she was critically injured in a horrific bus accident that killed several other passengers and caused her lifelong pain. It was during her convalescence that Kahlo took up painting, which would provide her with a means to express her suffering — which would include a harrowing string of surgeries and miscarriages — to the world.
In F.G. Haghenbeck’s 2009 novel The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo, the author imagines Kahlo in the aftermath of the accident, ascending to a spiritual plane where she meets Death in the form of a veiled godmother. The vision offers her a choice between the escape of death and a return to life, revealing the turbulent path that she faced.
Kahlo’s choice to resume living, despite the pain that it promised, resonated with saxophonist Melissa Aldana. “La Madrina,” one of the standout tracks on her latest album, Visions (Motéma), depicts that stern but nurturing godmother figure in a composition where stark introspection blooms into lush melancholy and tense urgency dissipates into elusive mystery. The piece forms part of a suite inspired by Kahlo’s life and art that Aldana wrote through a residency program at New York City’s Jazz Gallery.
“I relate to Frida in the sense that all of her art is very personal,” Aldana explained backstage at the Jazz Standard in May, on the last night of a weekend run to celebrate the release of Visions. “I was inspired by how strong she was and how honest she could be about who she was. [Her work] touches on a lot of universal issues: family, sexuality, abortion, lovers, et cetera. I feel like that sense of identity is what makes a real artist.”
That notion of “identity,” Aldana is quick to point out, isn’t necessarily related to anything as surface-level as gender or ethnicity. “I didn't choose Frida because she was another South American female,” the Chilean-born saxophonist insists with a hint of annoyance at reports that had already made those connections.
Only two pieces on Visions — “La Madrina” and the transcendent title track — are drawn from the “Visions” suite itself. The remainder of the album is culled from new and reprised originals as well as a fiercely yearning take on the standard “Never Let Me Go” and “Perdon,” a contribution from Aldana’s longtime bassist, Pablo Menares. Kahlo became less a direct inspiration than a guiding light, an example of singular vision and dedication that helped lead Aldana to follow her own instincts wherever they might lead.
“I was always amazed by the sincerity of Frida’s work, and being in my late 20s when I wrote the music, you start understanding who you are as an adult. This album is mostly inspired by the idea of who I am right now, feeling comfortable enough to just write whatever I want.”
Aldana’s research into Kahlo coincided with the more inward exploration of therapy. Nearing 30, the former child prodigy (she began playing at 6) decided to step back and attempt to understand herself and her complicated relationship to her father and teacher, saxophonist Marcos Aldana.
“Therapy started to help me figure out who I am, where I come from, why I feel the way I do, my anxieties — everything comes from families, so you start to also figure out who your mother is, who your father is. My relationship with my father is something really big that’s going to mark me for the rest of my life, so how can I translate that into music? This is what I’m hearing; this is the statement that I want to make right now. It’s not about playing the horn — everyone can play the horn. So what is it that I want to say?”
The art of Frida Kahlo is far from a new discovery for Aldana. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, she says, “Everyone in South America knows about Frida.” A painter as well as a musician in her younger years, Aldana copied paintings by Kahlo and another favorite, the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. She referred to the practice as “transcribing” — a telling analogue to the countless hours she’s spent working her way through influential sax solos.
Transcribing has been central to Aldana’s practice over the years, and has led to the strong imprint of a few vital voices on her own musical identity. She points to four in particular: Sonny Rollins, Don Byas, Mark Turner and, most surprisingly, vibraphone legend Lionel Hampton. “I did a lot of research on them,” she says. “Very deeply. I’m talking about marrying somebody for two good years and forgetting about everything else. So when I transcribed Don Byas, I was trying to play like him. Then the same with Sonny and Mark. I didn’t care about becoming my own person; I just wanted to play like them, to a point where it’s not about the notes. I wanted to learn how they think.”
Rollins’ impact on Aldana’s playing has been well-documented throughout her career. His influence can be felt in the molten flow of ideas that pour forth from her horn and the vigorous, focused way she unravels and investigates a melody, probing it from every possible angle and stretching it like putty. Even more essentially, it only took one listen to a Sonny Rollins album to determine the path her musical life would take.
[caption id="attachment_20502" align="alignleft" width="200"] Photo: Anna Yatskevich[/caption]
She’d already begun studying the saxophone, but she started out playing alto. Marcos Aldana taught lessons in the family’s home, and needing one more player to fill out an ensemble piece, he taught his young daughter a simple three-note part. “I fell completely in love with the instrument,” she recalls. “I don’t even know why; there was just something about it that felt very appealing. It was also maybe a way of getting closer to my father.”
The intense discipline and focus with which Aldana would later hone in on her own idols was instilled by her father’s teachings. The two would pore over Charlie Parker solos on cassette, turning the obsessive study into a game by moving, phrase by phrase, through a path in their garden. “There was something very special about the way he taught me,” Aldana says. “Everything was by heart and by ear. He never wrote down anything. He would show me something and then make me think about it and [draw] my own conclusions. He didn’t want me to just play the notes. He was teaching me about language.”
Marcos was a Michael Brecker acolyte, and some combination of his own predilections and the scarcity of jazz CDs in Chile at the time meant that a few years passed before Aldana was exposed to Sonny Rollins. Then a student returned from the States with a copy of Sonny Rollins Plus 4, and her fate was sealed. “That year my dad had given me a brand-new alto, but after putting that album on I told him I couldn’t play alto ever again. So he fixed my grandfather’s tenor and gave it to me, and since then I’ve been playing tenor.”
Aldana gained her first experience as a bandleader at 16, and within a few years had caught the ear of pianist Danilo Pérez, earning her an invitation to play at the Panama Jazz Festival. He then encouraged her to move to Boston and study at Berklee College of Music. There she gained important mentors like drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Ralph Peterson and saxophonist George Garzone.
“Melissa was very open to learn,” Garzone recalls. “She sounded good, but I tried to break loose the things that she was playing. She got into a more open style, more [influenced by] Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Once I taught her how to do that, she went for it. She was always really open to new ideas.”
[caption id="attachment_20503" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Melissa Aldana: "This album is mostly inspired by the idea of who I am right now, feeling comfortable enough to just write whatever I want.” Photo: Pablo Valle.[/caption]
After graduating from Berklee in 2009, Aldana relocated to New York City and released her debut album, Free Fall, on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music label. In 2013, shortly after the release of her follow-up, Second Cycle, she won the 2013 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. The award instantly raised her profile but is tinged with mixed emotions. Any mention of the award in the press was inevitably accompanied by the fact that she was the first female instrumentalist to win the competition.
“To this day when they still mention that, I feel disrespected,” Aldana bristles. “Get over it. Just talk to me as a musician. It comes off as more disrespectful to my craft than anything else. I guess it opens some doors, but that was the first time I thought about gender-related issues. Guys were pissed because a woman won the competition, and all of a sudden that became a big deal.”
Despite the emergence of horror stories from many of her contemporaries in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Aldana insists that she’s never faced any particular adversity due to her gender. As she’s recently been mentoring a younger crop of Berklee students, leading a series of student ensembles, she’s begun to see the importance of being a strong female role model. She led by example that night at the Jazz Standard, inviting one of her recent Berklee protégés, trumpeter Milena Casado, to join the band at the end of their first set.
“I never felt disrespected, I never felt treated different, I never felt like I didn’t get a gig for being female,” she explains. “But something that I never had was another strong female saxophone player, someone that played the horn so well that gender didn't matter. I feel like that’s something important that the next generation needs.”
For her album release weekend, Aldana was joined by pianist Sam Harris and bassist Pablo Menares, both of whom appear on Visions, with Kush Abadey stepping in for drummer Tommy Crane. Rising vibraphone star Joel Ross also guests on several tunes on the album. Visions marks the first time since her debut that Aldana recorded with a chordal instrument; on Second Cycle she shared the frontline with trumpeter Gordon Au, while Crash Trio and Back Home both found her in trio settings with bass and drums, inspired by similar trios led by Rollins, Joe Henderson and Mark Turner.
[caption id="attachment_20504" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Melissa Aldana: album that I’ve done has been a way to kick my own ass, force myself to feel uncomfortable and grow.” Photo: Anna Yatskevich.[/caption]
“When you’re a saxophone player and you play trio, you’re so naked out there,” she says. “I just wanted to put myself in an uncomfortable situation, force myself to become stronger with harmony and have a deeper understanding of how to play with a drummer and a bass player. Every album that I’ve done has been a way to kick my own ass, force myself to feel uncomfortable and grow.”
Visions presents a new set of challenges, expanding Aldana’s palette as a composer and adding the inspiration of Frida Kahlo and her work. Menares, a fellow Santiago native who has played on all of Aldana’s albums since Crash Trio, marveled at her evolution between sets. “It’s been an amazing journey to see the way the music has grown and the way Melissa has grown,” he says. “She asks the musicians in her band to play the music that each one has inside and to bring whatever they have to the music. The new album has a lot of strong compositions, but at the same time there’s a lot of freedom.”
While she maintains a rigorous practice regimen, Aldana also says that her maturation has included a slight emergence from her sax-centric tunnel vision to encompass other forms of art. She continues to wake up, she says, “thinking about practicing,” and it can't help that she lives with the constant reminder provided by her husband, fellow saxophonist Jure Pukl (the two nerd out comparing mouthpieces and the like, she laughs). Aldana says that her experience writing about Frida has led her to explore the work of novelists and sculptors.
“Mostly I’m amazed by an artist’s process,” she says, ever the diligent student. “I wonder how they became who they are. No matter if it’s music or cooking, everyone is trying to find an identity, and the process of becoming is the same for everyone.”- Shaun Brady
Featured photo by Anna Yatskevich.