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Tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana’s star has been rising for years, building on an advancing artistic promise. She delivers fully on that promise with her Blue Note debut 12 Stars, a thing of intelligence, beauty and expressive probity. 12 Stars is also a prime example of work carefully honed during, and partly due to, pandemic forces.
Dealing with her own COVID-era demons — in solitude after a broken relationship and nurturing a deepening interest in the tarot — Aldana channeled her creative energies into this conceptually cohesive song set. Aptly, the emotional temperament is often introspective, but always in motion and fired by a certain restless impulse involving interval leaps and innate questions posed within the musical fabric.
Aldana brings a refreshing and unhurried musicality to her soloing, drawing on intentionality and lyricism over showboating. Echoes of Wayne Shorter’s harmonic sensibility figure into her playing. But she continues to develop a personal sound, standing apart from the usual tenor influences.
She’s also in great collaborative company here, particularly with talent-deserving-wider-recognition Lage Lund. The Danish guitarist commands a bold yet sensitive voice on his instrument, represented here in his limber, clean-toned playing and luminous production and co-writing gifts with Aldana. Bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey supply a painterly solidity in the rhythm section, and superlative pianist Sullivan Fortner also lends his assured hand.
Clearly, though, Aldana is the protagonist, dishing up a densely packed solo in album-opener “Falling,” easing into tango mode on “Intuition,” paying homage to Toni Morrison with “The Bluest Eye” and embodying the dusky, balladic and Shorter-esque aura of “Emilia.”
Attention is paid to the dramatic arc of the album’s sequencing, as when the energetic, up-thrusting motion of the penultimate tune, “Los Ojos de Chile,” segues into the brief closer, “12 Stars.” In this graceful sigh of a finale, the musical tilt descends into a state of rest. Clearly, Aldana’s star has artfully risen. — Josef Woodard