In her deft use of light and shade, colour and line, serenity and abandon, Melissa Aldana is a painter. Except that she isn’t; she plays the tenor saxophone. But once, before settling on music as her medium, she thought about a career in the visual arts, spending hours with a brush in hand, meticulously researching how her idols made marks on canvas.
It was, she says, the same method she used to learn her horn: by copying the great masters. Still, her days of imitation are long gone. Since moving to New York City in 2009, she’s gone on to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, and to release five albums as a leader. She’s also developed an incisive yet melodic sound that’s all her own, and now she’s using that sound to pay homage to a special source of inspiration: the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
“When I was a kid, I used to love painting in oils, you know,” the 30-year-old musician says, in a telephone interview from her home. “So what I did was ‘transcribe’ her paintings—and then later on I tried to translate that into music, with the suite of pieces that I wrote last year.”
Visions, the resulting album, isn’t a faithful translation of Kahlo’s art; Aldana doesn’t try to capture the gestures of the great portraitist’s brushwork, for instance. “It’s mostly my interpretation of the feelings that the paintings give me,” she says. “A lot of the music I wrote has a lot of different levels and a lot of different sections, and I’m trying to tell a story. And this is what I feel from Frida’s paintings. For example, in that painting The Love Embrace of the Universe you have Frida Kahlo hugging Diego Rivera, who has a third eye, and you can see the universe and you can see Mother Earth. So I’m just trying to translate all of that into music and think more about narrative when I’m writing, instead of specific scales or structures.”
Aldana adds that on another track from Visions, “La Madrina”, she goes deeper into storytelling, and melds elements of Kahlo’s life with incidents from her own. “When she was a kid, she had an accident, and she sees the light, and this ghost at the end of the light which offered her eternity or to live, you know, and told her everything that would happen in her life. So this tune mostly talks about the life choices that we make, that we have to confront, and that go on throughout our life. I’m thinking about specific moments in my life that have marked or changed the way that I am—and this is what I feel that Frida does with her art. That is the inspiration I get from her.”
One thing is different for the saxophonist, however: while Kahlo had to battle sexism all of her life, Aldana says that the arts, in the 21st century, are now far more hospitable to women.
“I’m sure Frida was going through way more struggles,” she notes. “I mean, these days it’s easier to be a female. There’s a lot of acknowledgment; there’s a lot of consciousness about equality. So, if anything, I would have to say that there’s a lot of open doors for us.”
That’s good for Aldana—and for jazz, too.
Melissa Aldana plays Performance Works on June 30, as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.