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2019 Chicago Jazz Festival Preview: Q&A with Melissa Aldana

By Monica Staton

Melissa Aldana (photo by Harrison Weinstein)

On September 1 at Chicago’s 41st annual jazz festival, Melissa Aldana, a preeminent Chilean tenor saxophonist, will join pianist David Virelles, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, drummer Antonio Sánchez, and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón to collaborate for the first time as the quintet Latino-America Unida. The Chicago Jazz Magazine had the opportunity to learn more about Aldana’s contribution to the quintet, her musical influences, family, and her incomparable jazz education.

Monica Staton: Did you contribute compositions for Latino-American Unida?

Melissa Aldana: I did contribute. We’re going to play a tune of mine called “La Madrina,” which I recorded on my latest album Visions, it’s inspired by Frida Kahlo. This particular tune is inspired by a fictional story. Everyone in the band is contributing a tune for the actual concert.

MS: How do Chilean cueca and Chilean indigenous music influence your compositions?

MA: Even though I’m aware of it, I did not grow up with that kind of music in my family; my father was a jazz fan, and my grandfather as well. My strongest influence is jazz tradition, the tradition of this music—but I do have some influences from Brazilian harmonies and pop Argentine rock players like, he passed away a few years ago, he was an important singer and songwriter, his name is [Luis Alberto] Spinetta. Those would be some of my influences.

MS: What’s your ritual leading to a performance?

MA: I mostly warm up, I practice the basics, long notes and technique, whatever can help me feel more comfortable with the instrument so that my ideas can float easily.

MS: Your father, Marcos Aldana, is a leading Chilean saxophonist and teacher. You studied with him until age 15. How did studying with your father complement your Berklee experience?

MA: The most important thing that my dad taught me was discipline and the love of the process of how to practice. Those were really important things for me when I moved to Berklee because it gave me the opportunity to take advantage of things on a much deeper and higher level. I did a lot of practicing. I had a concept of how I should work and then in Berklee I had a chance to meet a lot of young musicians that were doing the same thing as me. I gained that kind of experience I never had in Chile. Both things complemented very well for me.

MS: Do you return often to Santiago’s jazz scene to jam with local artists?

MA: I do once a year, it’s very expensive to go there, it’s very far as well. I usually go in January for two to three weeks. I get to play with some local musicians: [guitarist] Nicolás Vera, [bassist] Pablo Menares who plays in my band as well. I visit some family, also it’s summer there, so we take advantage of that and that’s it—but I do feel a lot of support from my Chilean fellows. I do feel very lucky in that sense.

MS: You were the first female musician and the first South American musician to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Currently, are there other female musicians from Chile that you find inspiring?

MA: There are some, but the closest one that comes to mind is Camilla Meza, she is a guitar player and singer. I love the way that she plays and sings. There are more and more coming up, not only from Chile but from around the world, and I think that is a positive thing as well.

Melissa Aldana performs as part of the ensemble Latino-American Unida on Sunday, September 1, at 6:25 p.m. at Pritzker Pavilion. Click here for more information.

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