Melissa Aldana Crashes Into La Jolla

Using Sonny Rollins' "A Night at the Village Vanguard" as a template, Aldana took the saxophone trio idea for a new spin

The Chilean-born tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana (Thelonious Monk competition winner, 2013) made her San Diego debut at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library on June 18, with the Crash Trio, featuring bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela, delivering two long sets of improvised music to a considerably appreciative audience.

Aldana has been playing the saxophone since she was 6 years old, and at 25, her virtuosity isn’t debatable. She has wisely chosen the members of her trio, seeking challenge from musicians with greater experience – especially from Mela in particular, a veteran of ensembles led by Joe Lovano and McCoy Tyner, whose explosive energy and drive inspired the saxophonist to extend herself fully.

Mela kicked off the proceedings with a crisp fill as Aldana changed timbre several times over the melodic course of "M & M," unfolding her improvisation by patiently linking each phrase to the next before launching into several extrapolations of "Pop Goes the Weasel," with obvious delight.

Menares' clear and cogent lines were the touchstone as Mela consistently took on an Elvin Jones-type role, breaking up the motion with surprise attacks.

Aldana’s breathy hush elucidated the melody of "New Point" with a burnished Dexter Gordon approach, and as her improvisation heated up, she fired long, serpentine lines from blatts in the lower register to remarkably even expositions in the altissimo register.

A stunning, unaccompanied tenor cadenza led into an unexpected reading of the timeless classic "Bewitched," where Menares also excelled with dark clarity. This carried over to the bassist’s languid soliloquy to introduce his own tune "Tirapie," a modern, post-‘Trane vamp that showcased his preference for tone and ideas over velocity and the brutal genius of Mela, who may have been the crowd favorite by then.

The group finished the final set with a long, winding exploration of Aldana’s original "Bring Him Home," a clever invention that combined the insouciant verve of Sonny Rollins with Ornette Coleman’s happy-accident aesthetic.

Aldana is clearly in this for the long haul, and I really look forward to where she takes her music in the years to come.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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