Personnel: Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Gordon Au, trumpet; Joseph Lepore, bass; Ross Pederson, drums.
“Ellemeno” is an upper mid-tempo tune (composed by Au) with a jaunty, boppish theme played by trumpet and sax in harmony. Au takes the first solo, and he sounds a lot like Wynton Marsalis, with a straightforward tone, superb technique, and a liberal use of growls and note-bending. Aldana solos next; she has a solid, controlled sound on the tenor sax, using what sounds like a hard-rubber mouthpiece. Her tone is a bit like Stan Getz’s, though her phrasing is more like Joe Henderson’s (but she is more introspective than Henderson and uses more space between her phrases). Her solo here is intelligent and witty (e.g. she quotes from a couple of Monk tunes), and she has good interplay with Pederson, who does a nice job of filling in the spaces between her phrases. Pederson also gets in a brief, solid solo alongside a Lepore ostinato.
“Meeting Them,” by Aldana, has an intricate, quiet, sneaky theme played in unison by trumpet and sax against a shuffle rhythm provided by Pederson. There is a bit of improvisational interplay between trumpet and sax before Aldana takes the spotlight. Once again, there is good interplay between Aldana and Pederson during her solo; it is virtually an improvised duet between them. Lepore is comparatively static here, playing a repeated bass line. After a restatement of the theme, the tune quietly ends with Aldana musing on the tenor.
“Liquiescence” (by Au) is a mid-tempo tune with a pretty melody played in counterpoint by trumpet and sax and with a slightly Latin feel. Pederson is very active as an accompanist again (maybe even a bit too active). The horn players get to stretch out here: Aldana plays an attractive solo alternating fast runs with slower phrases, and Au is a more reflective and probing in his solo here than on the opening cut, still sounding like Marsalis in his faster phrases.
“First Cycle” (by Aldana) just has the trio without Au, the tune having a delicate, rhythmically complex melody. After a meterless section, Pederson and Lepore lock into a groove, and Aldana plays a strong, aggressive solo, with plenty of arpeggios, flurries of notes, and well-controlled forays into the altissimo.
“Second Cycle” is a lower mid-tempo composition, again without trumpet, with another rhythmically complex theme. Aldana tells a story in her composition rather than just providing a framework for improvisation.
“Free Fall” is an upper mid-tempo tune with a fast, (again) rhythmically challenging melody played in unison by trumpet and sax. Aldana shows off her sterling technique here with quicksilver runs. Au’s solo is probing and thoughtful.
“My Own World” starts with some exploratory a cappella improvising from Aldana and then moves into a slow, trudging melody (somewhat like Henry Mancini’s “Slow, Hot Wind”). Aldana displays some excellent control over the saxophone in her exploratory solo here.
“Polyphemus” (Au’s third and last composition on the recording) is a mid-tempo tune with a clever, intricate melody. After stating the theme, Aldana and Au trade fours and eventually improvise in duet. They then repeat the melody, have another rousing duet improvisation, and close out with a final reading of the melody.
Aldana then throws us a curve with a straightforward reading of the standard, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” She plays an impressive solo, very much in a Sonny Rollins mode. Lepore gets in a lyrical bass solo.
The recording ends with “The L Line,” which is like a mini-suite, containing different tempos and some meterless sections in its melody. Aldana solos on a slow section of the tune with an insistent bass line. She again solos impressively, starting slowly and then flying over and around the slower tempo. Au gets in a growling, swinging solo.
Second Cycle is a generous recording, at 74 minutes, with a focus on expansive improvisations from Au and especially Aldana, and the lack of a piano in the group really exposes their playing. While both possess super chops, their improvising is primarily marked by care, patience, and intelligence. Their playing fits together beautifully. The compositions are generally interesting, particularly rhythmically and melodically. Pederson is a very active, perceptive accompanist, but he and Lepore only get in one real solo each; I would have preferred a bit more improvisational economy from the horn players and more focus on the rhythm players for a better balance. But overall, the music of Second Cycle is rich and engaging jazz and is admirable for its maturity, skill, and integrity.