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Early Monday evening, the big hall at the MSU Federal Credit Union headquarters was standing room only. A man put his cookies on the seat next to him. A lady sat on them.
Never mind the cookies. Melissa Aldana, a Chilean-born saxophonist who is chiseling her own rugged path in jazz, was kicking off a weeklong residency at MSU’s jazz studies students with an hour of jazz heaven.
Aldana, 29, was an unknown quantity to many of the fans, and even to some of the students — for about a minute, until the band launched into a punchy, zig-zagging tune by Thelonious Monk, “We See.”
The music swirled with Monkish eddies and whirlpools, giving Aldana lots of room for one of her favorite ploys — sauntering behind the beat, daring you to think she’s lagging behind, only to zoom ahead and burst into dizzying arabesques, as if to say, “Where have you been?” Buoyed by Aldana’s focused, generous energy, the band got into a loosey-goosey, let-your-freak-flag-fly mood. Trombonist Eric Miller took the tune apart like a watch, throwing it on the floor on Eastern Standard and putting it back together on Alpha Centauri time.
Listening on the sidelines, Jordan Davis, a senior in composition and jazz studies, did a 180-degree turn and faced away from the bandstand, as if she couldn’t take it all in.
“It was beyond amazing,” Davis said.
“I’m at a loss for words. Honestly, they were swinging so hard, I had to remove myself at times, it was just so overwhelmingly beautiful.”
The chemistry experiments never stop at MSU’s jazz studies program. Each year, four or five illustrious guest artists spend a week with the students, teaching, and touring high schools around the state together.
The resulting compound bubbles up locally at the end of the week, in a joint concert with MSU jazz orchestras.
So what color does the music turn when you add a drop of Aldana?
Everyone found out Monday when Aldana packed a palpable, purple peroration into her ballad feature, “Never Let Me Go.” She began with a gripping solo intro — a skill she has developed to a fine art — that levitated like morning mist over water.
The mists parted just long enough for a cozy flicker of the melody to glimmer through, like a cottage on a foggy shore with the light on. Aldana’s band mates held on to the hush and responded with a series of tender solos.
At the close of the tune, Aldana swooped back in with a purple-pink sunrise of benediction that stretched into infinity.
Huddling with her fellow students, Davis was beside herself, listening on the sidelines.
“Her tone is absolutely incredible,” Davis said. “She’s a super-fearless player. She wasn’t afraid to use the entire horn. She played in the very lowest and highest ranges of the tenor horn.”
Midway through Monday’s concert, Aldana introduced a standard tune long associated with Sonny Rollins, “Without a Song.” She called Rollins her “idol,” but instantly seized the tune and grappled with it in her a playful, sinewy style all her own.
While on tour in 2005, pianist Danilo Perez heard Aldana play in local clubs in her native Santiago, Chile, and invited her to play at the Panama Jazz Festival and audition at music schools in the United States.
Aldana studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and moved to New York in 2009.
In 2013, at age 24, she became the first female musician and the first South American musician to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.
Rodney Whitaker, MSU jazz studies director, played bass in the house rhythm section at the competition that year.
“She came in for rehearsal and outsmoked everybody,” Whitaker said.
When Whitaker suggested getting Aldana to MSU, saxophone Professor Diego Rivera jumped at the chance.
“She was on the short list of musicians I wanted to bring here,” Rivera said. “There are lots of opposites in jazz. She has such a strong sense of the tradition, and that gives her a sound all her own.”
There’s one more thing Aldana brings to the table.
“Having a woman represented is fortunate for the students, especially here, since we don’t have a woman on faculty,” Davis said.
The women at MSU’s jazz studies program are forming a caucus within their student group, the Spartan Jazz Collective, to advocate for women in jazz. Community outreach to young girls and women in schools and guest speakers are in the works.
Davis is elated that two of this year’s guest artists in residence are women. The other is bassist-vocalist Mimi Jones, coming in early February.
“It’s super encouraging and inspiring to hear them play and talk to them about their experiences in jazz,” Davis said. “It makes me feel that I can go out into the world and do the same thing.”
MSU Jazz Orchestras with Melissa Aldana 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 Fairchild Auditorium, MSU 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing $7-17
(517) 353-5340 music.msu.edu