South Americans get the saxophone in a way that gets to me. It started with Gato Barbieri and Last Tango in Paris, his tenor paradoxically sharp and lush, a bite and a kiss. It stayed with me, like an inoculation against its own forgetting, since first I heard it. Then, a few years ago, when I discovered the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet, I saw, watching Laura Andrea Leguía, the sax as spiritual breath to the life of the whole. Then came to my ears Melissa Aldana of Chile.
I heard her twice or thrice with her countrywoman Camila Meza, the singer and guitarist, and once subbing for Leguía in the Sextet, and on Spanish television, and spun her CDs. Finally on Tuesday, I saw her with her trio and her own material, live. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola was a good place for her. The space fans out from the stage and the view of Central Park widens the field. Aldana’s art is about environment. It doesn’t just fill a space: it spreads ambiance. And while it does it keeps its focus.
Something in her is magnetic and unassuming at the same time. She cuts a figure, olive-skinned, with a cataract of black hair pouring, in a smooth stream, down her shoulders. Yet she doesn’t play, as perhaps she might, on star power. You’re invited to watch her, and hear her music, and to gain some sense of how it emerges. The sax is a full body instrument, sensitive, as the breath is, to which foot the weight is on, or both, the bend and bounce of the knees. Of course the body responds in return. She rises on some notes to the balls of her feet, or leans way back, or angles forward, cantilevered against the energy of the house. None of this is unduly theatrical. It’s too natural for that, and it isn’t calculated. The merest puff seems new. She can be light, and even tentative, as though she is discovering, if not the sounds she makes for the first time, something about them she didn’t know before, the novel in the familiar.
She plays with a bassist, Pablo Menares, whose impassivity is just right for her trio: he does not tell us, with his face, as some players do, how we are to respond to the sound; and with a drummer, who on Tuesday was Allan Mednard. Menares and Mednard had – it is the tone that Aldana sets – both power and modesty, or, better said, the two-in-one, the one inside the other. She, Aldana, knows how to listen, and doesn’t mind letting us see it. It was a something of an object lesson, seeing her, when she gave over to the others, attend to what she was hearing, in how music ought to be listened to, for the large pattern, yes, but also the small surprise or unexpected insight. That is, perhaps, how she composes, or arranges; it is, in any case, how her music sounds, and spreads, impressionistically, through the space.
Aldana didn’t say much: simple intros of the musicians, titles of the numbers, given quickly (I hesitate to name any for fear of getting them wrong), what album they were off, whether they were new or old. But there is nothing distant about her. She invites you in and welcomes you, all at once. The music she makes is everywhere in the room, and constantly blooming: you want to go to it, when you hear it, but you can’t, because it is all around you, already there.