Melissa Aldana’s cultured, light-toned tenor saxophone is steeped in the winding pathways, dynamic contrasts and harmonic thickets of contemporary narrative jazz. Raised in Santiago, Chile, she graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2009, and, based in New York, is a fixture in international jazz.
This quartet gig, an early evening full-house show, presented music from 12 Stars, her sixth album and Blue Note debut. Conceived during lockdown, the somewhat introspective set delivers twist-and-turn structures, shaded dynamic extremes and melodies that leap from low register to high. Here, it felt like a series of variations on an overlapping theme, and it was the fine detail of a classy working band that gripped.
The evening opened with the understated urgency of a double bass riff, two full chords from Lage Lund’s guitar and the gentle melody of “Falling” stated by tenor sax. Aldana’s long solo expanded the song’s gently contrasting moods with controlled dynamics and a keen sense of form. Fragments of scales scuttled into the upper register, cerebral highs were grounded in earthy low-register tones and short silences cued a new train of thought.
“Intuition” came next, a bolero-inflected complexity introduced by a short abrasive guitar figure. The piece unfolds from stirring beginnings and floaty interludes to sharp bursts of drums and a hint of blues; first Aldana and then guitarist Lund flowed freely while following the form to the letter. Then the slow-burning “The Bluest Eye”, named after the Toni Morrison novel, introduced a shade of samba, a drum solo and further narrative twists.
The album expertly interweaves piano with Lund’s guitar, but here, in the absence of a piano, the rhythm section was a thrilling force of its own. Three numbers in, Lund delivered a mesmerising concoction of lean chords, rhythmic trickery and space, propelled by Kush Abadey’s singular approach to drums. At times, the drummer seemed to caress rhythms from his kit, at others delivering a whiplash effect by simultaneously crashing on cymbal and snare; his showcase, a highlight of drum-kit dynamics, raised the house.
The set’s ballad, “Emilia”, was introduced by a beautifully rounded solo from Aldana’s longtime double bassist Pablo Menares. The pensive piece, inspired by a dream, featured whisper-quiet Lund guitar that held the audience in thrall and slow-burning sax moving inexorably to a peak. The evening’s up-tempo rouser, “Los Ojos de Chile”, was delivered at speed, but eased into a mid-tempo waltz, ending with an orchestrated slowdown and fade.
The finale, 12 Stars, as on the album, was trippy and brief. Aldana’s quietly slurred sax floated over Lund’s astral support, bass and drums expertly intertwined, and the last sound was a breath of low-note sax. No time for more. The house had to be cleared for the following band.