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Melissa Aldana — “12 Stars” (Blue Note, 2022)


Melissa Aldana will be releasing her new album, “12 Stars” (Blue Note), on 4 March, and she talked about it with Derek Brown for Sax Magazine. Listen to a couple of tracks here.

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International Journal of Music

Thanks so much, Melissa, for taking the time to tell us about life and saxophone playing and the new stuff you’re working on. I’m really excited because in March you’re going to be releasing a new album. I’ve gotten to listen to a preview of it, and it’s sublime. I can feel the emotion just coming out of your horn in such a raw, visceral way. It’s beautiful! It’s on Blue Note Records, and it has kind of a mysterious name. It’s called 12 Stars. Can you tell us why you called it that?

Well, last year, I went through a really deep process. I got separated, and like everyone, I stayed alone for three months basically without seeing people. And as I was going through the process, I got into the history of tarot, the card reading. And I took classes to learn about the history of the symbols. It was a way for me to make sense out of the process that I was going through, like as they call it in astrology: the Saturn Return. And the amazing thing about the tarot is that it talks about the journey of the individual, of the soul. And as I was studying that, I got into numerology as well. My main card in the tarot is the empress, which symbolizes creation, beginning, motherhood, femininity, etc. And she wears a crown that has 12 stars which could represent the 12 months of the year, her connection with the universe eternal, nature and other things. So that is the name that represents mainly my process throughout the pandemic.

Okay, cool! And clearly, jazz saxophone has a history with these very spiritual albums. I’m mainly thinking, of course, of A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Do you feel like that’s been a big part of your playing in the past: this spiritual element you mentioned? Getting into astrology or tarot cards? Is that a newer thing, or has that always been an important part of your life and has it always been related to your playing?

Not necessarily, at least not consciously. I think I was just trying to make sense out of everything that was happening, so I got into some other kinds of things, on more of a spiritual path. And I do feel like I’m in a new period of my life because I went through that crisis, and because I get to know myself better; because I get to sort of die and be reborn like the myth of the phoenix. I feel like there is much more acceptance, knowledge, and maturity in who I am, and that also has to do with the way I play. I have transcribed so much my whole life, and I still study the history of the music but accepting the way I hear things is something that I’m trying to come to peace with. And trying to see what is my conclusion out of all the transcriptions and things I have learned in the past.

Photo: Eduardo Pavez Goye.

Here’s a quote that you said about your album: “Embracing everything I hear, everything I play — even mistakes — is more meaningful than perfection.” Can you talk a little bit more about that? I feel like so many of us musicians are perfectionists, and I often wonder if that’s maybe why we’re musicians in the first place? Because we actually have the drive to work on something until it becomes perfect. So how do you actually accept mistakes, or how can that be more important than perfection?

To me, it’s a weird thing because I still practice a lot. I’m on the road, and I’m still doing like two to three hours every day before a concert. And when I’m at home, and I have all day, I do six to seven hours. So practicing is something that I love, and I’m extremely perfectionist. I can spend hours and years trying to just get into somebody’s mind. But as I’ve grown older, I also understand that the ego is a big part of not growing as a musician — this idea of having to sound a certain way or being a killing saxophone player. And to me, at the end of the day, if I have done the work, and I’m always gonna do the work, now what is my conclusion?

I remember when I came to New York for the first time and started going to jam sessions. I started feeling extremely vulnerable and lost. There were many people and a lot of ego, and I wanted to keep going until it would get to a point where I didn’t care. But it’s not that I didn’t care, but like the whole process of just trying to be in the moment. Because to me — and I understood this with the pandemic — the most beautiful thing about music is the experience of being in the moment and where there’s no gender. There’s no culture. And I’m addicted to that thing, so if I’m playing with ego, I’m not really allowing myself to enjoy the moment. And also, I’m not allowing myself to grow. I see it in such a parallel with becoming an adult and growing up. You do have to make mistakes. Everything has to fall apart in order for you to become the person that you’re meant to be.

And I sort of see the relationship with the tarot too, like on the tower, the 16th Major Arcana, that talks about the moment of your life where all the old structures don’t really work, and the way that you relate to the world is not the same as before. It doesn’t serve you as much. So I think that music is the same. And I feel if I want to practice and I want to control, then I can really be free. And the way that I think about my process right now is sort of mastering the language from all these influences. Because I basically practice the same things: I practice really slow, long-tones for hours, harmony, and things like that. So I think about it like trying to find my language that’s coming from all my influences and being able to talk, like I’m talking to you right now. I have a language, and I can express myself in the moment. So that’s the way that I’m trying to think about music right now. But the thing is, I don’t want to practice what I’m gonna play either, so I don’t practice patterns. Because to me, that is sort of like cheating.

Yeah, because you want it to be in the moment when you’re live, not what it was weeks ago when you were practicing. That makes sense.

Yeah, it’s a beautiful feeling.

So I’m a professional musician. I’m 38 years old, and I have always struggled with being in the moment, where it feels so different when I’m practicing on my own and no one’s listening. I feel very free. But as soon as I get in front of people, it’s just like something shuts off because I’m so concerned for how it’s being accepted. So do you have any tips for people to get to that point? What would you suggest for getting over ourselves? Or is it just something that just comes with time? What do you think?

I think it comes with maturity. And when I think about what it is that I want, I want to have a stable band where I can make mistakes and grow and develop a concept. So it’s not really about the career. The career is the vehicle that is going to allow me to do that. And understanding that allows me to put my ego on the side. But another thing is that, of course, I have an ego, and of course, I always want to sound good. So things that make me feel stronger — that sort of put that voice on the side — are for me to practice six hours a day. Or if I play a concert and have all day, I will go and warm up so I’m sure I have the perfect breath and everything is cool so I can just play.

Yeah, so I think it has to do with getting to know yourself. And I always remember I was called to do a concert subbing for Chris Potter, and I was extremely nervous. So, of course, I memorized all the music; I was super prepared. And then it was a good thing for me to start questioning: Why am I nervous? What is the worst thing that could happen? And some of the things have to do with the idea of not trusting yourself, not accepting yourself. So I think trying to relate that to the personal process and connecting everything and taking a bigger picture makes it easier to leave things on the side. But it also has to do with experience, trying to have aimed for that every single time that you play.

That’s good stuff. On your latest album, my favorite track might be the title track 12 Stars at the very end. It feels maybe more improvisatory than the rest of the album, as it just seems so emotional and raw. It feels so personal and honest. How do you feel you were able to capture that? This is your first solo album with Blue Note which is a very legendary label, of course. I could imagine extra pressure with that. But did you feel like you were able to completely get in the moment? What was going through your mind on that track?

Yeah, I definitely feel that with all the album. I bought a whisper room in the summer. And to avoid all those things, I was always awake at six and just worked super, super hard to just go and play. So I would do like four hours before and then arrive to the thing. I have sort of my ritual to know that I can be focused and I can feel good about it and not worry about anything. And also, I have an engineer, James Farber, who — because of his vibe and the way that he captured the sound — I don’t have to worry about it. So we basically got into the studio and just recorded.

But the connection I have with the tune is like what’s at the beginning of my whole crisis. I started learning more piano, and I started writing tunes. And I called that tune Goodbye Song in the beginning. And it was a goodbye to basically the life that I used to have. And I wrote half of it and then left it. And at the end of December or January, I finished the tune with the second part. And to me, that sort of symbolizes the completion of a period of my life, the beginning of the closure of a long process and now the journey to a new one. So I feel super connected to that song. But actually, that is the truth for every single tune of the album. I feel extremely connected to it.

Well, the whole album is amazing, and I can definitely sense that! In another interview, you had mentioned having to be vulnerable in a way working with a producer this time. What was different about this album in that way?

Well, I wrote all the music, but Lage Lund arranged everything and co-wrote some of the songs as well. And I’ve never really had anybody putting their own take on all of it. But this was Lage’s view of where I was trying to take things. And Lage is somebody that I really love first of all as a person. I trust him. I feel like I got close to all the guys during the pandemic, and I think that you can feel that on the album. And I love his tastes, and I wanted to learn from the way that he worked on my music to write more things in the future. So my choices always come with the idea of trying to gain a different perspective and shape the way that I hear things, which of course, has changed since I started playing with Lage or guitar players more than piano players.


Full Interview: “In the Moment”

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