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With "Falling," Melissa Aldana raises the curtain on a much-anticipated Blue Note debut

Melissa Aldana makes her Blue Note debut as a leader with '12 Stars.'
Melissa Aldana makes her Blue Note debut as a leader with '12 Stars.'

The news that Melissa Aldana had signed to Blue Note, which we reported last spring, instantly set the bar for a daring new artistic turn. Today she meets those high expectations with "Falling," the first single from her forthcoming quintet album, 12 Stars.

As a tenor saxophonist, a composer and a bandleader, Aldana stretches in vital ways on the new album, which was produced by an esteemed peer, guitarist Lage Lund. The quintet on 12 Stars features Aldana and Lund alongside pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey — all of whom distinguish themselves on the new single, which doubles as the album's opening track.

Melissa Aldana - Falling

The title of 12 Stars refers to the adornment of the Empress' crown on a tarot card. (Cécile McLorin Salvant, who created the album's cover art, makes various allusions to tarot in her surrealistic design.) Aldana grew interested in the symbology of the major arcana during her early pandemic experience, a period that also found her regrouping after the end of a committed relationship.

"So I took the lockdown as an opportunity to learn more about myself through the process of learning tarot, whose focus is the journey of an individual," she explains in a press note. "As I studied the cards, I started writing music about each of them, individually. And I found that the process described on the tarot is a process that we all deal with somehow throughout our journey here on earth."

As for "Falling," Aldana calls it "the tune I was writing when I felt that everything in my life was falling apart." Strikingly, though, the sound of the composition doesn't suggest unraveling so much as prevailing — notably in the choices Aldana makes as an improviser, repeatedly spiraling up to a note in her altissimo register, and seeming to fix it in place. The determination in that gesture is well supported by Fortner's sparkly embellishments at the piano, and by the thrumming yet controlled insistence of Menares and Abadey.

Last month, Aldana paid a visit to WBGO, where we talked in person about 12 Stars and her ongoing journey through the pandemic, which has yielded benefits along with its setbacks. Stay tuned for that discussion, which we'll share closer to her release date. And keep your fingers crossed for Aldana's spring tour, which is scheduled to include her first booking as a leader at The Village Vanguard, March 1 through 6.

12 Stars will be released on Blue Note on March 4; preorder here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.