Melissa Aldana

Photos by Eduardo Pavez Goye.

Bassist Ron Carter, world-renowned musician and most-recorded jazz bassist of all time, said in an interview for Stereophile's Musicians as Audiophiles that he sees himself not just as a bassist but also as a scientist, forever striving to understand and perfect the sound of his recordings. Chile-born saxophonist Melissa Aldana, a stunningly expressive jazz musician, shows similar dedication to her art, studiously investigating the century-long history of the genre.

Aldana started saxophone lessons at age 6 under the tutelage of her father, Marcos Aldana. Her technique and musicality progressed steadily, influenced by a pantheon of great alto and tenor saxophonists, Sonny Rollins in particular. She went on to study at Boston's Berklee College of Music, graduating in 2009. Just four years later, she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk international jazz saxophone competition—the first female musician and the first South American to win that competition. (Marcos Aldana was a semifinalist, in 1991.) The prize: a $25,000 scholarship to the Monk Institute and a recording contract with Concord Jazz. In 2020, she joined the New England Conservatory's Jazz Studies faculty.

Videos posted to her Instagram feed (melissaaldanasax) hint at the breadth of her mastery: She is heard maneuvering through slow, calm passages and blurringly fast sequences, from high-pitched birdcalls to deep, low rumbles. One also hears an ease of flow, precision, and clarity, and an occasional, unexpected softness.

When I heard her in concert at The Jazz Gallery in New York City, presenting material from her Blue Note release 12 Stars, Aldana and her ensemble—guitarist Mike Moreno, acoustic bassist Pablo Menares, pianist Sullivan Fortner, and drummer Kush Abadey—performed as a single organism, soaring through the graceful, often complex material with frenetic ease.


12 Stars, her sixth album as leader and her first on the Blue Note label, was released in 2022. It was recorded and mixed by James Farber at Samurai Hotel Studio in Astoria, Queens, and Sear Sound in New York City, and mastered by Mark Wilder. Vinyl was cut by Ian Sefchick at Elysian Masters in Los Angeles.

On 12 Stars, Aldana and her bandmates roam the precipitous slopes of a dreamscape. "Falling" conjures bliss weighed by a sense of foreboding as soothing cascades of golden iridescence from guitarist Lage Lund and pianist Fortner are punctuated by Aldana's dark squalls and turbulent rhythms. A bolero rhythm underpins the regal, adventurous "Intuition." Quavering, spectral "Emilia" sounds surreal and spooky. Inspired by Toni Morrison's first novel, "The Bluest Eye" projects disquietude, like a descent from a vertiginous peak. Effortlessly pulsing, "The Fool" has the mood of a Michael Brecker composition from his Impulse! period, Aldana dancing and swerving. "Los Ojos de Chile" swells and surges, Aldana's quartet passing around and juggling. The title track closes the album with a tremble, a fading dream slowly giving way to consciousness. The whole album, even the more frenetic passages, is permeated by a sense of calm control.


Aldana's previous album, Visions, was a tribute to the life and work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Other albums in her discography include Free Fall (Inner Circle), Second Cycle (Inner Circle), Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio (Concord Jazz), and Back Home (Wommusic). Aldana has also performed as part of the all-female jazz supergroup Artemis, with Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen, Allison Miller, Renee Rosnes, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Noriko Ueda; their debut was released on Blue Note in September 2020. Aldana also played on Cécile McClorin Salvant's Grammy Award–winning album, The Window. (Salvant designed the cover art for both Visions and 12 Stars.)


My interview with Aldana began with a discussion of tarot, a practice she's been studying. The interview was edited for concision and style.

Ken Micallef: How was today's tarot reading?

Melissa Aldana: It was quite interesting. A new thing for me. It felt very natural even though it was unique. My tarot reader mostly described a healing process. I come from an interesting family background. I'm healing from a lot of things. It's a deep process, and it's very related to music. He reminded me that I should nurture myself as a person too, not just as a musician. It was beautiful.

Micallef: Your music has a mystical and spiritual quality, the way you and your band glide and twist: It's like a single organism.

Aldana: I don't have lyrics to tell you what I'm thinking or feeling, and that is something that I always struggle with. Because I'm feeling a lot of things, and I want to express them in a way that connects with people, through harmony that moves people and tells a story. When you hear Caetano Veloso, you don't understand the lyrics, but the movement of the harmony tells you the story. My compositions, in an abstract way, are related to that. The way I think about solos is the same. I'm thinking about the bigger picture. I'm not thinking moment to moment. It's like an out-of-body experience, being able to see the bigger picture of how we all tell stories together.

Micallef: Your recent album, 12 Stars, sounds as if it were composed as a suite, each tune fusing into the next. Your playing is very fluid, complementing that.


Aldana: I wrote the album during the pandemic. I went through a huge crisis. It was a deep, personal crisis. It taught me a lot about myself, about my musical process as well. It helped me to identify the things that I connect through music but that I never applied to my personal life. I'm happy, actually. I'm very happy that it happened because I was trying to make sense out of my own process. I went on a spiritual path, which I've always felt but never began. I studied tarot to learn something different.

It's not necessarily about card divination but about the personal process. I saw the relationship of that with my musical process. I'm a perfectionist. The fluidity you hear comes from hours of practice, every single day. I've spent years transcribing one musician, trying to figure out how the person sounds. It's not the notes; it's how the musician sounds. It's important for me to understand where I'm coming from as a saxophone player, meaning that I understand the history from Coleman Hawkins to Mark Turner. And it's been really hard to let it go because it makes me feel in a safe place.

When I'm playing, I have to be in the moment, and I have to be okay with sometimes falling apart. I have to allow myself to go through that process in order to find who I am. During the pandemic, I basically collapsed. Everything fell down, and I came through the process with much more acceptance of who I am and understanding of my place and the things I need to work on. Music helped me grow through that process, as did the meanings and tenets of the tarot.


Micallef: You went through a marital breakup.

Aldana: Yes, but more than that. It was an accumulation of things, about dealing with my boundaries about who I am. We connect with people through our struggles. We all come from the same place at the end of the day but with different stories. My struggle began at childhood, and it showed up in my relationship with friends and relatives. It was so tough that I had to focus on myself and go inside. I became a hermit, which is also one of the cards of the tarot. It talks about this being a part of the process of life, when you go inside to achieve certain things. I found comfort in the tarot. It has to do with trusting and maturing and getting to know yourself.

Micallef: Over your last few albums, your saxophone sound has become softer but more dynamic. Your sound is more contained and quieter, but it is more powerful.

Aldana: That comes from practicing consistency of tone. Every day, two hours of long tones. Even when I practice the fundamentals, I practice in a way that makes me aware of my plot on the instrument. Aesthetics mean a lot to me. To me, sound is aesthetic. Now that I have my own apartment, I really care about aesthetics and the way things are put together. The details. In the same way, it's not just about good sound; it's also about the detail behind the sound. I work a lot on detail. I have a WhisperRoom sound booth where I practice, so nobody can hear me. That way I hear the sound is coming from me, but not from outside. I usually wear headphones, and I can tell every frequency of the sound and I can completely relate in the way whether I like the sound or not. I spend all these hours just trying to figure out one little thing, another little thing, another little thing, and after two years, they add up. That's the idea of the albums.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This interview is an object lesson in how a journalist, entering an interview fully prepared, uncovers layers of information and meaning with each question. Thank you, Ken.

Julie Mullins's picture

I second Jason's opinion. This was a good, informative interview.

johnnythunder1's picture

A fascinating musician and person. I learned a lot which is why I'm an audiophile and read Stereophile - for deeper insight into not just stereo equipment but music. Can't wait to do a deep dive into her recordings.

rschryer's picture

You're a Master of Interviews, my friend. Great job.

windansea's picture

I'll be listening to her albums this week.

Hopefully she'll replace that JBL with some old Altec Lansing Flamencos, to follow her concept of blending new with old.