Meet the Music Makers: Melissa Aldana

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In late summer 2019, when Melissa Aldana was in Chicago for the Chicago Jazz Fest, the first South-American Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition winner sat down with UChicago Presents to discuss her upcoming performance of Visions for Frida Kaho at Jazz at the Logan. Watch the video above to hear Aldana discuss the origins and inspiration for the suite, and read on for the full transcript of the interview.

UChicago Presents: I understand that when you were a young saxophonist and you were learning the language of jazz, the way that you studied the music was very similar to your experiences as a young painter. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like?

Melissa Aldana: I used to be really in love — and I'm still in love — with the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, the painter from Ecuador, who is an art icon in South America. Around the same time, I was taken by Frida Kahlo. I was always amazed by the colors and the message behind her paintings. I always thought, since I was a young kid, that her paintings were very personal. I didn't know much about her as a woman or her history, but I was really drawn by how she expressed herself. So I would take some paintings and just imitate them. Of course, it took me a long time and it wasn't good, but it was a hobby that I had, aside from practicing the saxophone.

UCP: You mentioned too, that Frida was a source of inspiration for you as a young artist. Now that you're older and you're writing music that sort of draws on Frida’s work and life, you're also inspired by Frida as a person and the figure that she was as a woman. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

MA: I never really thought of Frida again until I was commissioned to write Visions from the Jazz Gallery, the club in New York. I mean, she's always been in the back of my mind, but I never thought of doing anything related to her or her work. So when I got the commission, I wanted to find some kind of source of inspiration aside from what I had been working on my whole life. I chose Frida, but I never thought of her as another woman from Latin America; I just thought of her as an amazing painter, somebody that I can really relate to, and how personal her work is. I wanted to write music inspired by her life and some of her paintings, and I came up with some fictional stories as well. I was wondering how music could be inspired by an actual story or an actual character.

For example, the second movement of the suite is called “Diego.” I was thinking about how I could express the idea of Frida’s lover [Mexican painter Diego Rivera] through music. In the story, they describe him as this very fat man that walks with very heavy steps as he goes to paint a mural every day. I was trying to think of a rhythm that will describe that kind of feeling, and also describe that kind of character. He was a man that was always around women, a crazy drinker, very heavy drinker, really involved in the politics ­— you know, just a very passionate man about life and about what he believed. So I chose this rhythm of six-eight time, like a fast one-two-three, one-two-three, that would express the idea of him going to his work.

Another part of this suite is called “La Madrina,” which I recorded on my last album well. This is a story that I kind of made up, and I got some from her autobiography as well. La Madrina is a ghost that appeared in Frida’s life when she was very young; she had a bad accident, so she went to the hospital and she was about to die and was in a coma for a long time. When she was about to die, she sees this tunnel with a light at the very end, and sees a ghost that comes to her and tells her everything that's going to happen during her life. Frida was just a teenager then, so this ghost tells her that she’s going to meet Diego, and that she’s going to be painting the rest of your life. So the ghost offers her a deal: to go to eternity and be happy and peaceful, or stay on earth. So Frida chose to stay alive, and go through all the painful but beautiful things, and express that through art.

So that's how the suite came alive: slowly, by reading about her life, watching the movies, the documentaries, getting really immersed in who Frida Kahlo was — this painter that I was always just amazed by, and really understanding where she was coming from. I started writing the music, and that is how the six movements came to life.

UCP: In addition to some of these imagined anecdotes from Frida’s life, I understand that some of the music was inspired by her artwork, and by two paintings in particular. Can you tell me about those paintings, and what it was inspired you?

MA: One of those is The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl. It’s quite a long, complicated title, but to me, this painting represents all the meaningful things that were around Frida’s life. One of those is Diego, and in the painting, Frieda is holding Diego, representing a motherly feeling that she had towards him. It also expresses her connection with the Day and the Night, the Earth — the different elements that are important to her life. So this is something that really spoke to me — what love means, what does it mean to be a female, what does it mean to be connected to earth, where we're coming from, in terms of identity.

The other painting is called The Two Fridas, which literally shows two Fridas connected by their hearts. To me, this talks a lot about identity, and trying to find who you are and where you're coming from and what is your place on the planet Earth, which I think is something we all deal with as we get older, and we all think about it.

UCP: You spoke a little bit about how these things that happened to Frida — or, the things that you imagine happened to Frida — inspired specific musical elements. Are there any elements of works themselves — the visual stuff, the aesthetic stuff — that inspired aesthetic things in your writing? In other words, is there anything that translated directly from the art to what you hear in the music?

MA: Well, more than the paintings themselves, what really inspired me from Frida is this process of self-acceptance, whatever that meant. A lot of her paintings are — I mean, most of her paintings are coming from that. For example, there's one that is a depiction of Frida being stabbed by somebody else, and then you see the image of Diego. One of the things that happened in Frida’s life is that her sister got involved with Diego as a lover, so that painting represents that. I think that is mostly about this process of self-acceptance, and talking about who you are, and also the different layers of life. I think that a lot of the music was written with that in mind. In the suite, you can hear a lot of counterpoint, a lot of different ideas coming together. It doesn't have the typical A–A–B–A form that a lot of jazz standards have, it’s kind of like a long story with interludes with different textures, a lot of counterpoint where everyone in the band is bringing a new idea, and there's a lot of layers of conversation happening. That is what I took from her art into the way that I was writing.

UCP: You mentioned that visual art and music have always run parallel throughout your entire life. Have you always wanted to write a piece of music that was inspired by art? Or was it something that sort of emerged recently as an interest?

MA: I think it emerged when I got the commission from the Jazz Gallery. I was trying to find a theme that would make me inspired and I could identify with, and for some reason Frida Kahlo came to my mind. I've always been fascinated by art, but I never thought of just writing music inspired by that.

So after that, a lot of ideas came. I've been writing music inspired on a painting called Ingrito by Oswaldo Guayasamín. But for me as an instrumentalist, it’s very hard to express that through music, because I don't have any lyrics, you know? But I'm trying to think again about different layers of what the painting means, through counterpoint, through the way that I shape the music, with interludes and different kinds of textures.

UCP: The personnel that will be touring this project with you, many of whom you recorded the album with, include Chicago’s own Joel Ross, Sam Harris, Pablo Menares, and Kush Abadey. What was it about each of these musicians that inspired you to work with them, or made them a good fit for this project?

MA: First of all, every musician in the band is somebody that I feel plays their instrument on the highest level, and they're very personal in the way they approach their instrument. So when I choose the people in my band, I'm not just looking for people that can really play the instrument, I’m choosing somebody that is very open minded and wants to bring something personal, but at the same time, is very attached to the tradition of this music. For me, that is something very important as a musician as well — even though it’s not always actually what I'm playing, I'm really coming from the tradition, going way back to bebop and even before. So that is number one. And then, I love people that think about the bigger picture when it comes to music, and that is the way I write the music, too. Thinking about how to tell a story, thinking about different textures, but at the same time, about the chance to take the music to different places every night, which is one of the things that really matters to me for this suite. We’re going to be performing the same music every night, but I want to take chances and I want to leave it open to bring our own stories from the day or whatever into the concert that we're playing that night.

UCP: I think that's also true of visual art, in general. It appears to different people in different ways, and it invites different interpretations. And so I imagine that writing music that is inspired by an artist's work or an artist's life almost invites things to be different each night.

MA: Yeah, for me, that is very important — and not just with the suite, but with the music in general. You know, when we go on tour, I refuse to play something the same way every night, because I think that the most important thing is to express yourself, and of course, every day something happens. You don't wake up happy every day or feeling the same way. So of course, that should get involved into the music. As I said, one of the things that I really want to do is give a chance to experiment, so that is why the people who are creating the visual art with me are going to keep that in mind. It's a lot of open space to like, maybe leave an image open for longer, or just start playing with images, you know, aside from the fact that we're going to have something already settled.

UCP: I’m also curious about where the actual title of this work, Visions, came from. Was there a particular story behind that choice of words to describe the project?

MA: The title of Visions mostly refers to where I see myself and what I'm expecting, and all these questions that have started appearing. I just turned 30, and maybe it’s something related to this period of my life where I’ve start questioning a lot about who I am. It's not just about playing the saxophone; it's about like, Okay, I'm a female. I'm South American. Where do I see myself in the next few years? What does it mean for me to be a mom, to have a family? What does that have to do with my career, is that going to affect it? So it's just a vision of where I see myself in the future, and where all these questions of identity come from.

Also, when I wrote this suite, a lot of music from my new album started appearing. One of those pieces is called “Acceptance,” and I think that this is a big theme in Frida’s life — just accept who you are and embrace that through art. What does it mean to be beautiful, or be a feminist, or feel a certain way in a certain place?

UCP: It’s interesting that an original work that is inspired by and reflecting on someone else's life and work ultimately becomes a vehicle for self-reflection — I think that's a really interesting thing about your process. What do you hope audiences might take away from hearing this music?

MA: I hope that we will be able to make them feel something. The idea of having the whole visual element is to try to express what inspired the suite and show the questions that I'm asking myself, even if the music itself is not a real answer. But I hope it makes them reflect on who are we as a society, how we are connected and how we all go through the same things. For example, love, and what love means, and being with somebody as a female; or the thing of family — where we’re coming from, in terms of father relationship, mother relationship. What does it mean to be beautiful? What does it mean to be accepted? All these things are things I want people to reflect on and recognize that this was where the inspiration was coming from. I'm hoping that the visual element will give them a better idea to reflect on these different questions that I have about life and self-identity.

UCP: What have you been listening to lately?

MA: I just listened to Miguel Zenón’s last album, Sonero. It’s really beautiful. I'm playing today at the Chicago Jazz Festival with him, and to me, it’s really quite an honor. I have looked up to him since I was a kid. Playing with somebody that plays and writes on the highest level, and is so conscious about identity — about who he is and where he's coming from, and bringing that into his music — it really means a lot. So I’ve just been checking out that album, and a lot of other things from Miguel Zenón lately.