“Old Town Road” was everywhere last year, but Melissa Aldana somehow managed to escape its grasp. The first time the jazz saxophone star heard the song that dominated 2019 was earlier this week, when she learned how to play “Old Town Road” on the tenor.
The Chilean-born, New York–based Aldana is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo at the 2020 Grammy Awards for her performance on “Elsewhere,” a track off her quintet’s 2019 album Visions. In honor of the upcoming Grammys, Rolling Stone invited Aldana — who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013 and has studied with saxophone masters such as George Coleman and Joe Lovano — to perform a rendition of another nominated song: Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ instantly iconic ode to the cowboy life, up for Record of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best Music Video at Sunday’s awards.
“I think it’s an incredible tune,” Aldana tells Rolling Stone of “Old Town Road.” “Super catchy, super fun to listen to, has an amazing groove. So I think that’s why we didn’t have a hard time trying to figure out how to play it in a different context, because it’s a really strong tune.”
For the performance, Aldana enlisted her own Billy Ray in bassist and frequent collaborator Pablo Menares, and the result is an unlikely but entirely natural jazz-country-trap mash-up. The pair starts with an exploratory intro before digging into the song’s deep groove and instantly recognizable melody. There’s not a hint of kitsch to the improvisation that ensues, as Aldana and Menares examine the theme from all sides and get lost in its easy-rolling flow.
“The performance felt great,” Aldana says. “I really had a lot of fun and I really feel like I was able to be myself within the context of music that I don’t usually play.”
She adds that she finds cross-genre covers “tricky,” but, she continues, “at the same time I’ve found in my experience right now, it’s a nice challenge. Just to see how you can keep the message but still be yourself, and add your own input into the music.”