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Melissa Aldana makes the most of a Village Vanguard debut, in stellar company

Eduardo Pavez Goye
The Melissa Aldana Quintet: Pablo Menares, Sullivan Fortner, Aldana, Kush Abadey, Lage Lund.

Melissa Aldana began her weeklong engagement at The Village Vanguard by announcing from the stage that it was a dream come true. I’ve heard much the same idea expressed in that room many times before, by other artists making their debut in the world’s most storied jazz club.

What made it feel special in this case were the circumstances: Aldana, a tenor saxophonist and composer originally from Santiago, Chile, is one of a small but growing number of women instrumentalists to headline at the Vanguard, and her booking comes as the club (like the larger community) is still emerging from a long pandemic shadow.

Aldana has been engaged in a process of reemergence herself; in many ways that’s the subtext of her excellent new Blue Note release, 12 Stars. She composed the songs on the album over the course of the pandemic, a period during which she was also regrouping after the end of a committed relationship. Along with an even more serious investment in her practice regimen, lockdown conditions fueled a turn to toward introspection. One rabbit hole she went down was the study of tarot — an interest that inspired the album’s title as well as its cover illustration, by Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Melissa Aldana, Nate Chinen and Immanuel Wilkins at WBGO on Dec. 13, 2021
Jamara Wakefield
Melissa Aldana, Nate Chinen and Immanuel Wilkins at WBGO on Dec. 13, 2021

“The whole album talks about my personal process of finding what they call in astrology the Saturn Return – becoming an adult, growing up, entering your 30s,” Aldana told me during a recent visit to WBGO, for a Jazz Media Lab panel discussion with her labelmate and fellow saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. “So as I was going through this process and everything that was happening, I got into tarot, the card readings. And not really about divination but the history of the symbols. And also it was a way for me to make sense out of my own process.”

Aldana leads a briskly aerodynamic quintet on 12 Stars, with Sullivan Fortner on piano, Pablo Menares on bass, Kush Abadey on drums, and Lage Lund, who also produced the album, on guitar. At the Vanguard on Tuesday, Fabian Almazan filled in for Fortner, sounding brilliantly in his element; his piano solo on “Emilia” seemed to unfurl as a continuous ribbon of sound.

The rest of the band inhabited this high plane of articulacy and adaptability, flowing as one. But there was often cause to marvel at Aldana’s work out front, and in particular her control across the full range of her horn. She has always favored the tenor’s altissimo register, along with a scalar language adapted from Mark Turner. But through intensive practice over the last couple of years, she has developed her extended range into a less aerated sound, almost meaty in terms of its body and presence. And she’s now working with a phrasing and intonation that often artfully smudges the line, as if to lean away from linear pattern and toward a spirit of vocalization.

It’s a gratifying turn for an artist as intrigued by human truths as Aldana has proven to be, and along with the sleek design and brilliant execution of the music, it made for a radiant debut on jazz’s most iconic stage.

The Melissa Aldana Quintet appears through Sunday at The Village Vanguard. 12 Stars is available Friday on Blue Note.

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