We couldn’t be happier in congratulating 24 year old Melissa Aldana for taking the top-honors at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition on Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for The Arts in Washington DC.
To make it even better: The 3 finalists – who also included Tivon Pennicott & Godwin Louis – are all best friends and peers, and there was a lot of love and mutual admiration between them even as Melissa’s win was announced. In fact the first thing she did was to give them a big hug, which was captured beautifully by NPR who wrote a review of the event here (click and go to bottom of page to view a great photo of that hug).
Sunday, the day before the finals, the semi-finals were held at the Smithsonian Institute in DC, and featuring 13 saxophonists performing 3 songs in front of the esteemed judges, all true heavy weights of jazz: Jimmy Heath (shown in the photo here next to Melissa), Wayne Shorter, Bobby Watson, Jane Ira Bloom and Branford Marsalis.
The contestants each had to perform 3 songs in the semi-finals. Melissa chose to perform 2 standards and one original piece: “Long Ago & Far Away” (Jerome Kern), “Ask Me Now” (Thelonious Monk) and M&M (Melissa Aldana). The stellar rhythm section – consisting of Reginald Thomas on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass & Carl Allen on drums – had to perform with 13 different sax players in a row, all playing different songs including a bunch of new, original songs that they had very little time to rehearse and “get into”. So they had a few problems with Melissa’s original tune (sounded marvelous otherwise), but Melissa handled this like a true pro and just calmly showed them the path forward without panic. Later Thelonious Monk Jr. expressed that he felt that this moment was significant, as “jazz is a lot about recovery on the spot”.
The evening of the finals was a star-studded affair that included a lifetime achievement award to the great Wayne Shorter, now amazingly 80 years old, but full of youth and vigor in every other respect. The competition part started early in the evening with Tivon opening, Godwin in the middle and Melissa playing last. They each had to perform 2 songs for the final, each having about 10 minutes on stage. Melissa chose to open with “I Thought About You” and chose another original as her closer – the title track to her debut album entitled “Free Fall”. Then the judges left the room to deliberate, as well as to perform as part of the evenings festivities, and the result was announced at the very end of the evening. Strangely the announcing of the winners started with 3rd place (Godwin Louis) and then announced 2nd place (Tivon Pennicott) before announcing the winner (Melissa Aldana), which meant that people knew who the winner was before she was announced. Still, it was obviously a very happy moment for Melissa and all of us who are her supporters, and she got to play “Gingerbread Boy” with Jimmy Heath (Jimmy also composed this classic), Roy Hargrove, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Miller & Herbie Hancock (among others) as part of the grand finale.
Melissa’s win is a first on many levels: She is the first female instrumentalist (non-vocalist) to win the prize. She’s also the first South-American to win the prize. And she is the first finalist to win the prize who had a family member as an earlier contester – namely her dad, also highly esteemed saxophonist Marcos Aldana, who competed with Joshua Redman, Eric Alexander and Chris Potter (1st, 2nd & 3rd that year) in 1991.
Here are some links and reviews of the evening:
Melissa Aldana now look forward to make a new album for Concord Records (the win included a recording contract with them) and to perform a tour with her Crash Trio also featuring Pablo Menares on bass and Francisco Mela on drums. She will also perform at the Barcelona Jazz Festival as a special guest with Spike Wilner’s Trio, as part of a “Small’s Jazz Live” presentation.
Please follow Melissa on Twitter @MelissaAldana and on Facebook here.