TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Melissa Aldana is making her own way

Melissa Aldana. Photo: Harrison Weinstein

Perhaps no artist epitomizes the determined free spirit more than Frida Kahlo.

The 20th century Mexican painter battled polio, a crippling accident and social conventions to stand true to herself.

Her strong persona along with her art, is what attracted the attention of the Chilean born saxophonist Melissa Aldana, so much so, that she has built her latest album called Visions around Kahlo. Those Visions will be at the TD Ottawa Jazz festival on June 26.

“The media made me think about Frida as a female but I really chose her as an artist first. I was always amazed by her work.

Frida Kahlo

“When I was a kid I did a lot of painting with oils and I was in love with her painting. I didn’t know too much about her history but was amazed by the colours and her portraits. She always stood out to me for some reason. Later I found her story really amazing.”

Last year she was asked to prepare some music in a commission by a gallery.

“I wanted to choose a topic of inspiration. I didn’t really identify with a lot of topics. I didn’t want to talk about politics in the U.S. I wanted to do something a bit different. I have always been interested in how painting and music could be connected.”

So she built a whole suite around Frida Kahlo. And that evolved into an album. The music “talks about the visions that you have in life about who you are and accepting that and relating that to art.”

A second song on the record also deals with Kahlo. It’s called La Madrina.

“This is based on a story about the choices you make in life. La Madrina was supposed to be a ghost. She appeared to Frida after she had her accident when she was about to die. The ghost offered her a choice between eternity and the pain of what would be her life.”

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, 24-1/2 x 19 inches. (Nickolas Muray Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin).

Frida chose life.

“The reason why I stayed with Frida is because she was a very honest artist.” She wasn’t afraid to talk about family, “What your father means to you,” sexual identity and how you fit yourself into society.

“Frida Kahlo was somebody who was always herself no matter what and she always went her own way.

“This vision that I take from her is mostly that, more even than the paintings or the beauty of her work.”

That kind of example is important for Aldana, personally and professionally.

“These days in society, living in New York as a young musician, we all worry about trying to fit into something. But you cannot take away the fact that the most important thing in music is to play who you are.

“How can you make the music personal. How can you communicate what you have to say. That is why she inspired so many. She was being herself. I think that is such an important and hard thing to see today.”

The music on her latest record is “a very honest representation of what I am hearing right now.

“It wasn’t about making a magazine cover. I spent a lot of time writing music with a lot of layers to it. I thought it was very telling, even though it now feels old already. I am very proud of the record because it is truly what I wanted to present.”

Aldana grew up in Santiago, Chile where music was part of the family tradition. Both her grandfather and father played the saxophone.

She started playing at age six.

“I always loved the saxophone. If I grew up with the piano, however, I’d probably be super-interested in the piano too. I’m passionate about what I do. I always search and push myself. I’m sure if it hadn’t been the saxophone it would be something else.”

The story goes that the young Melissa heard a Sonny Rollins record and discovered her voice in the tenor saxophone. ”

To this day I don’t play alto or soprano sax. When I was 12 I heard Sonny Rollins for the first time is true. I heard him and went wow.”

For some years she played a saxophone that her grandfather gave her but it “got old so now I have another Selmer Mark VI.

“It had an emotional thing to it early on but as I am growing older I’m becoming my own person.”

These days she lives in New York. That’s a long way from Santiago.

She goes back once a year to see her mother and her sister. She is estranged from her father.

“I still have friends there. Every time I go I get to play. I get a lot of support and encouragement from my country so I do like to go back there.

Santiago has a good jazz scene, she said, but it doesn’t compare to New York.

Still, “the level is high. There are more clubs and festivals and more money to support musical projects there.”

For many years Aldana played in a trio because “I felt it was the way to grow as an artist. Playing in a trio is so hard. You really have to deal with the instrument.

“I felt that a trio was best way to get my ass kicked every day and learn to play the instrument at a higher level.”

Having graduated from the school of musical hard knocks, Aldana now is leading a quartet. She likes being a band leader.

“I’m following Frida’s path. I get asked lot of questions about being a female band leader. Does my gender affect me, or do I not get opportunities because of gender, but I have to be honest, I don’t understand why young women are saying the scene is so hard.

“This is something that happened years ago. These days there is a lot of encouragement for female players,”

She doesn’t like the fact that reviewers tend to talk about her gender before they discuss her music, if they talk about the music at all.

“It feels disrespectful.”

Melissa Aldana Quartet
TD Ottawa Jazz festival
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: June 26 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.