Most of us have a guiding voice. A sense, however vague, of some sort of spiritual compass. How we access it involves commitment: to being still, going deep, taking time to listen. Having spent the last few years doing precisely this, feted tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer Melissa Aldana has found a wealth of inspiration in introspection. Her music – variously light, airy and interwoven with intricate harmonies, and dark, squalling and strafed with turbulent rhythms – is the sound of her personal journey.

“I’ve been getting to know myself and understanding where I’m coming from,” says the Chilean-born, New York City-based artist, 34, in her accented English. “Now that I’m older, I have the knowledge, the intuition and the truth about what my path should be.”

Welcome then, “Echoes of the Inner Prophet”, an eight-track voyage that includes six new pieces by Aldana, who co-produced the album with her longtime friend and band member, acclaimed Norwegian guitarist (and here, arranger) Lage Lund. She tells me their synergistic working relationship is grounded in mutual respect. “I just love Lage’s tastes and approach to music making,” she says.

“As I started falling into one of my healthy crises” – or if you like, embarking on another quest for self-discovery – “I asked Lage about his vision for my music so that I could learn from the process, which required a lot of trust and openness. For me, working with other musicians is a skill.”

“It is so important to collaborate,” continues Aldana, whose eponymous quintet, founded in 2017, currently features pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey.

She pauses and smiles. “And to find a balance with your need for alone time.”

Here lies the intriguing paradox at the heart of “Echoes of the Inner Prophet”, Aldana’s second release on the Blue Note label, and her follow-up to 2020’s Grammy-nominated “12 Stars” (which featured pianist Sullivan Fortner). It’s a work in which the vulnerability that comes with intimacy, and the honesty that accompanies self-knowledge, vies and blends with the joy of collaboration, of community. That vibrant tension is there on tracks including Lund’s “I Know You Know”, the Aldana-penned “The Solitary Seeker” and the title track, a paean to Wayne Shorter that, à la Shorter himself, tells a story by painting sound like colours.

“I’ve transcribed Wayne a lot over the years but his music is something I am deeply connecting with right now. I have a new understanding what he went through and the story of his albums, which I relate to in a way that I didn’t when I was younger,” says Aldana of the late modern jazz pioneer and Blue Note stalwart.

Shorter (who died aged 89 in 2023) was a member of the jury that awarded Aldana the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013. The daughter and granddaughter of saxophonists, Aldana had picked up the instrument as a child, practicing for hours each day between listening to Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. It was a rarified jazz bubble inside “a country that really didn’t embrace jazz.” A chance meeting with Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez connected her with musicians from the United States; aged 16, she won a scholarship to Berklee, then the Monk prize (her father had been a semi-finalist in 1991), and got ever-increasing numbers double taking.

Melissa Aldana. Photo: Ebru Yildiz / Blue Note Records.

Her musical journey has similarly grown in strength, fortified by a desire for storytelling, an active interest in alternative philosophies – she’s previously cited everyone from mythology writer Joseph Campbell to visual artist Frida Kahlo to author Toni Morrison as inspirations – and her own authentic soul-searching: “I’ve realised that I can tell a story with the way the harmony is moving, using harmony to express the personality of the tune, the idea behind it.”

“To me, sound is a frequency where we vibrate as human beings,” she continues. “You hear Wayne, or you hear Trane, for example, play one note and they transport it to a different place. So I’m always looking for that thing, to try and incorporate it in the way I express emotion. I’m going more deeply as time goes by, especially this past year.”

Another smile. “It’s a lifetime’s work,” she says.

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Jane Cornwell is an Australian-born, London-based writer on arts, travel and music for publications and platforms in the UK and Australia, including Songlines and Jazzwise. She’s the former jazz critic of the London Evening Standard.

Header Image: Melissa Aldana. Photo: Ebru Yildiz / Blue Note Records.