The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition is one of the most prestigious prizes in jazz—so two years ago, when the Chilean-born Melissa Aldana, then just 24, became the first woman to win an instrumental category in the contest’s twenty-seven-year history, there was bound to be a lot of hype. We’re here to tell you: Believe It.
When we first set eyes and ears on Aldana with her Crash Trio at Le Poisson Rouge in New York at last year’s WinterJazzFest, she stopped us in our tracks. The first thing we noticed was her sound: big, warm, inviting. Then we heard the inventiveness of her soloing, which pairs harmonic depth with rhythmic sophistication. Finally, we took in the close connection and the sterling interplay she shares with her band mates. In fact, we not only heard it, we saw it, in her stance and her body language: Aldana leans in toward her fellow musicians, watching, smiling, moving with the sometimes strong, sometimes subtle pulse coming from the bass and drums. It’s a winning stage presence.
For all that and more, we think of Melissa Aldana as another big “catch” for the RJA; as Jazz Times put it in a June 2014 feature story, she is poised to become “Jazz’s Next Tenor Sax Great.” She’s also our favorite kind of rising star: a musician with seemingly the entire span of jazz history at her fingertips, but also “leaning in” toward The Now and The Next. The quotes at the top of the page tell you that the critics have heard Aldana’s deep connections to past masters, but her most notable mentor is the always progressive Greg Osby (who graced the RJA stage last fall). Grounded in the tradition, but moving the music forward: that’s been the jazz formula for success since Louis Armstrong left King Oliver’s band.
Joining Aldana is Pablo Menares, a fellow Chilean (and a fellow transplant to New York). An elegant and lyrical bassist, Menares, well known in South America, is building a strong reputation in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Sitting in for the Crash Trio’s regular drummer Francesco Mela, meanwhile, is Jochen Rueckert. Originally from Cologne, Germany, Rueckert has played with many of New York’s most notable jazz names, among them Kurt Rosenwinkel, Madeleine Peyroux, John McNeil, and Mark Turner. Under the pseudonym Wolff Parkinson White, Rueckert has a notable sideline as an electronic musician, and he is also the author of the series of gonzo short story collections Read The Rueckert: Travel Observations and Pictures of Hotel Rooms.