Melissa Aldana against a brick wall with a mural
Credit: Eduardo Pavez Goye

For her 2019 record Visions, jazz saxophonist Melissa Aldana looked outside herself, crafting songs around meditations on the work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. But on her new Blue Note debut, 12 Stars, the 33-year-old bandleader taps into the realities of the pandemic era to explore inward, plumbing familial links and self-care as well as a newfound interest in tarot. She opens the album with “Falling,” a look at her own life after the end of a relationship, which came when the world began to roil with social unrest and COVID uncertainty. Aldana’s unfaltering glissando helps her express the unrelenting weight of isolation, a slurry of notes that serves as a calling card—one that helps define her recognizable tone and phrasing. She considers the possibility of motherhood on “Emilia” (where Sullivan Fortner guests on Rhodes piano) and endless roaming on “The Fool,” named after a character from the tarot (where she’s ably accompanied by guitarist and producer Lage Lund). Elsewhere, Aldana explores her thoughts about the world around her. “Los Ojos de Chile,” where she winds a knotty main statement around a midtempo tune, most directly delves into themes of social justice: she draws on her feelings about a movement in her native Chile to protest wealth disparity and what were seen as exorbitant public-transit rate hikes. On “The Bluest Eye,” inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name, Aldana interrogates notions of physical beauty, tying the personal to the political and the internal to the external. Her spirit is hardly tempered on 12 Stars, but her compositions feel moodier and more contemplative compared to earlier works. The album demonstrates her ability to channel the unceasingly weird experience of pandemic-era isolation into music—and it confirms her development into a major voice in jazz.

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Melissa Aldana’s 12 Stars is available through her website.