Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1988, Aldana is the daughter of the renowned tenor saxophonist Marcos Aldana. Her father was also an instructor, and from the age of six she insistently began to request that he teach her how to play. After she mastered the two notes he gave her to play, he got her an alto and her formal studies began. His primary method for her was transcription of solos from cassettes; the first artist she learned to play from was Charlie Parker. Though she learned from all the great alto masters, it was upon hearing Sonny Rollins that her musical course changed direction irrevocably, and she requested to be given a tenor instead. She received a Selmer Mark VI from her grandfather Enrique (who had taught her father to play); she has used it ever since.
At the age of 16, Aldana was already headlining jazz clubs all over Santiago. When she learned that Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez was coming to Chile as part of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, she was determined to meet him — his wife had been a student of her father's. That meeting proved fateful. After hearing her, he invited her to play the Panamanian Jazz Festival. She was not only well received, but Pérez brought her to the United States and arranged auditions for her at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Though accepted by both schools, she won a scholarship to Berklee. There she studied under Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Bill Pierce, and Ralph Peterson, to name a few. Upon graduation, she relocated to New York and was mentored further by George Coleman. She also woodshedded in clubs, sitting in and learning from other musicians.
Her first date as a leader, Free Fall, was issued by Osby's Inner Circle Music label in 2010. In support, she played not only clubs in New York but a host of European jazz festivals. Her sophomore effort, Second Cycle, was released in 2012. She formed the Crash Trio later that year — she had known Menares from the Chilean scene years before. The group quickly established a rapport and became a go-to straight-ahead unit known for both originals and standards.
At the age of 24, in September 2013, Aldana won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. The jurors were Jane Ira Bloom, Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Shorter, and Bobby Watson. She was the first female instrumentalist ever to win the competition. Part of her prize was a recording contract with Concord Jazz; the label issued Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio in the summer of 2014. The album earned wide critical notice and was invited to play some of the most prestigious jazz festivals in the world including the Playboy Jazz, Monterey, Umbria, Marciac, Pori, and Molde stages. She also played prestigious clubs including the Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Smalls, and the Regatta Bar. She performed with Jimmy Heath at the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Award Ceremony. In 2015, Wynton Marsalis invited her to the Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Aldana's second Crash Trio album, Back Home, was issued by Wommusic in March 2016, with drummer Jochen Rueckert replacing Mela. The quintet date Visions arrived in 2019 and found Aldana drawing inspiration from the work of painter Frida Kahlo. ~ Thom Jurek