Linda May Han Oh has gotten used to carrying her double bass up the four flights of stairs to the Harlem walk-up that she shares with her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan.
No doubt she’s had lots of practice of late. Besides composing for and performing with her multiple ensembles, she’s been touring internationally with guitarist Pat Metheny’s quartet and teaching at The New School in the West Village in Manhattan. She just released her fifth album as a leader, Aventurine, on Almazan’s Biophilia Records, and is actively engaged with the label’s social mission: to create meaningful music with other environmentally woke artists. Despite the ongoing demands of her burgeoning career, however, Oh’s demeanor remains composed, even graceful.
Her ability to manage complexity contributes in no small part to her swift rise as a creative musician during the past decade. In the years since Oh graduated from Manhattan School of Music with a masters’ degree in 2008, commendations for her captivating performances and clean, melodically driven compositions have poured in: a semi-finalist spot at the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Bass Competition, the Jazz Journalists Association’s nomination for up-and-coming artist of the year in 2010, winner of the category Rising Star-Bass in the 20112 Downbeat Critics Poll, a Jazz Gallery commission that same year, and a Jerome Foundation Fellowship in 2016. As these accolades accrued, before long some of the biggest names in jazz started to tap Oh as a side-player: drummer/producer Terri Lyne Carrington, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and pianists Vijay Iyer, Kenny Barron, and Geri Allen (1957-2017).
When it comes to her craft, Oh is a driven, conscientious musician—and easy to work with, to boot. “Linda is one of the best people you could ever meet,” asserts Aventurine saxophonist Greg Ward, whose admiration for Oh’s abilities has only grown during the eight years he’s been working with her. “And [as a musician] she keeps getting better and better.”
The groundwork for Oh’s success was laid early, a half a world away from Harlem. Born in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, Oh moved with her family at age three to Perth, Australia—not the typical launching pad for an international music career. “Perth is pretty much the most isolated major city you can find,” Oh said in a recent interview.
Even so, Oh’s mother made sure that she received top-notch musical instruction, starting with classical piano lessons in the Yamaha method at an early age. From the rigors of this initial training, Oh moved on to play bassoon and clarinet in school bands before picking up the electric bass—and metal, rock, and alternative chops with it—at age 15. From there it was a short step to the upright and jazz.
“I come from a traditional Chinese household where we learned classical music in a regimented program. Some of the teachers were pretty hard—we had many competitions, and there was a lot of pressure. That training set the foundation for things, though, and after that it was about discovering other types of music, all of which influence how I write and put music together today,” she asserted.
As one track segues smoothly into the next throughout Aventurine, one can hear the multivariate influences of Oh’s broad cultural and musical experiences. Her instrumentation features a genre-bending octet: a modern jazz rhythm section (Oh, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Ches Smith); a string quartet (violist Benni Von Gutzeit, cellist Jeremy Harman, and violinists Sara Caswell and Fung Chern Hwei); and saxophonist Ward. In addition, for the first time Oh is writing for a chorus—the vocal quintet Invenio, led by Australian singer Gian Slatre.
To make full use of these talents, Oh’s compositions can reach wholesale across the musical spectrum. In her writing she might use classical orchestration, jazz grooves, and contrasting improvisatory styles, and her sources might range from Baroque music to jazz standards to traditional Asian melodies. What for many musicians would be an almost unwieldy surfeit of options, for Oh is a well-practiced juggling act.
“With this music I had different challenges in mind. I was wondering how I was going to roll with an idea and push it to the nth degree,” said Oh about the new album. “On ‘Song Yue Rau,’ for example, I was taking one theme and trying to develop it in a way that’s interesting. The questions were, How does it develop? Where does it go? Where do you want to take someone?”
“Song Yue Rau” derives from a simple Chinese folk song, typically performed by a singer-storyteller to hand percussion. On the track Oh cycles through the short, bouncing melody as she would a jazz head, but in counterpoint and different keys. After opening with the melody in the bass and violin—a straightforward exercise—the tune quickly expands into a fascinating modern jazz composition that revolves disjointedly around this recurring theme, concluding with a sinewy sax solo that ventures far from the original tune. Mesmerizing.
Oh approaches Charlie Parker’s classic bebop blues “Au Privave,” the only standard on the album, with similar shifts in key—this time adding rhythmic variations and looping improvisations. The task at hand was to find a way to unify five different melodies in four keys, in much the same way that J.S. Bach unified two measures in different keys in a fugue section of Clavier-Übung III. You won’t hear any fugues on this tune—or much of the “Au Privave” head, for that matter. These ideas serve as mere starting points for Oh’s own adventurous compositional forays. But she demurs at the suggestion that this approach is any kind of brilliant.
“It’s not an uncommon technique,” she explained. “It’s still the same concept of developing a theme, which in this case is the head of ‘Au Privave.’ In classical music you see the idea of developing one theme, putting it in different keys and changing the rhythm so that you’re stretching it out. The theme is not exactly the way it used to be, but that’s the way you develop it. Then, in putting together the whole piece, when it starts to bang on these separate themes in different keys, [the challenge is] how to make it work, how to find some unity.”
The unity that Oh seeks in her compositions and arrangements is about more than having a smart compositional strategy however. During the creative process, when listening back to her music, the piece needs to sound genuine, natural, and satisfying, she asserts. It’s a feeling thing—and a principle that harkens back to her early Yamaha training, when her instructors encouraged her to link specific tones with emotion, colors, and moods “so that your music is not static, you’re getting really involved,” Oh said.
The title cut is a case in point. First, Oh establishes the theme in three distinct, steadily intensifying interludes: a strings-only segment, a string and rhythm segment, and a choir-strings-and-rhythm segment that highlights the vocal quintet. As the piece moves through the lyrical string portion, into skittering sax and piano solos, and toward an exultant choral upsurge, Oh advances the tension by progressively pulling her musicians into a cohesive rhythmic pattern. The last to join is the choir, which falls into a bop figure in the final moments of the piece. It’s a well-crafted roadmap, certainly—but for Oh, craft is no substitute for sensation..
“Sometimes I just want imagination and drama,” she said. “On [‘Aventurine’] I set up this mood at the very beginning with the strings. I was imagining waking up in the morning with a time lapse of seeing a sunrise, then—bang. You’re into this fresh new world where things are happening everywhere. You can almost see all of these different colors here and there, culminating in this glorious expanse.”
In discussing her music, Oh will frequently refer to visual images, and visual images seem to prompt her creativity. For instance, the optical illusion Lilac Chaser, a moving series of green and purple orbs, inspired her to write a tune by that name; in its opening, the anchoring bass notes are E-flat, a note that Oh associates with green, and A-flat, a note that she associates with purple. Mirroring this visual image aurally, the tune spins atop a thrumming bass before morphing into something else—a jagged piano improvisation, smooth string interjections, a whirling conclusion.
When asked, Oh agreed that specific sensory associations affect her aesthetic decisions. “I wouldn’t necessarily think, ‘I want a purple piece so let’s do it in...’ But the idea does come into play, subconsciously or not,” she said. “For example, on ‘Deepsea Dancers’ I was thinking of being underwater, where you can’t hear anything. There’s a dancer and an ethereal melody threading throughout. I think of water as green-blue, so E-flat for me was an easy key for that. I wouldn’t have picked D or something.”
The 14 rich-hued songs on Aventurine stand out as the most complex of all Oh’s recording projects to date. But from a bird’s-eye view of her discography over the last decade, a growing inclination toward a bigger ensemble sound is clear. On her debut, Entry , Oh used a contemporary jazz trio—trumpet, bass, drums, and no chordal instrument. Subsequently, on 2012’s Initial Here (Greenleaf Music), she wrote for a piano-based rhythm section with two solo musicians, including vocalist/composer Jen Shyu, who sang in Mandarin. On 2013’s Sun Pictures (Greenleaf Music) and 2017’s Walk Against Wind (Biophilia, her third and fourth releases respectively, Oh started adding occasional guitar to her instrumental palette and singing her own vocal lines. And by Aventurine, she was tackling orchestral and choral writing head on.
“[The new album] is definitely my most ambitious compositional work to date,” Oh stated. “It involves more people and experimenting with strings and a vocal group, and the compositions are more intricate…than previously.”
Pianist Mitchell, who first met Oh in 2012 and has played with her in a variety of performance settings, has noted the development of her artistry over the years. Impressed, he likens her writing to those of major jazz innovators. “I see Pat [Metheny] and maybe Chick Corea as the forebears for the type of composing she does,” he stated. “She has a lot of sonic ideas.”
In 2015, when Oh was still working out her ideas for Aventurine, she began touring as a player with Metheny’s acclaimed quartet. The gig—a career-building opportunity—arose from a chance post-concert meeting.
“I met [Metheny] in 2013 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, and we spoke briefly backstage. Then two years later, I ran into him again and he asked if I’d ever gotten his email about playing together. [She hadn’t.] So we met up and played, and it’s been an amazing process since,” she recalled. “It’s incredible how dedicated and detailed he is, the way he shapes his music and his sets. Even with his own compositions, it’s interesting to see how he workshops them.
“[With his group] it’s really about paying homage to the song that you’re playing and what that means when you have to improvise during that song,” she went on. “There are instances [on his gigs] where I stick very closely to the bass line in more of a supportive role, and others when there’s more freedom to move. But [in working with Metheny] I feel that I have developed clarity and honesty when it comes to playing a certain part. It can be easy to hide behind ambiguity in improvisation, when your improvisation is not necessarily purposeful. So clarity is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot.”
Oh’s conscientiousness as a player extends beyond her work before an audience. Besides the impact of her musical ideas on her listeners, Oh gives strong consideration to the social impact that music can have on the world. Thus, as her profile as a musician has risen, so has her visibility as an advocate for the environment and gender equity in jazz.
Since 2017, Oh has been recording on the Biophilia Record label, a green company founded by Almazan in 2011. Through its mission, events, and evironmentally responsible packaging, Biophilia offers an alternative to more commercially focused record producers.
“Fabian started this label with the idea of connecting musicians and releasing good music, but also of being active within the community and promoting environmental awareness,” Oh reported. “The label is a great way to get out there and be proactive, even if it’s just a grassroots effort. Through it we’ve done volunteer work locally for Trees NYC, composting for the Lower East Side Ecology Center, and cleanup for Riverkeeper.
“We also have a mandate that we don’t have plastic in the CDs. It’s all Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper, and when we mail out CDs, there’s no plastic involved. We’re not trying to vilify CDs at all, it’s just a statement about plastic,” she added.
Oh has also spoken out publicly about gender bias in the jazz world, a topic that remains in the forefront of discussions about education and employment in the music industry. She has clear ideas on how to proceed—as in her music, the solution lies in listening, understanding, and seeking unity.
“Now is the time to start the dialogue and communicate if there are things we want to change,” she began. “I think that everyone needs to take a step back and reevaluate their biases—their own mental health—which is really the basis of so many issues. We shouldn’t dismiss someone’s differing vantage point as an invalid position and say that their perspective doesn’t matter. We cannot go into any discussion ignoring how our respective vantage points affect our perspectives.
“This is why we must educate ourselves, actually listen to each other, and re-evaluate our biases and blind-spots,” she suggested. “I’m seeing some younger musicians really putting it out there, which is really beautiful. A lot of young men are coming forward and talking about their feelings and making an overall self-evaluation. And everyone now is thinking more about what they perceive when they see someone play, what it means to look at them, to have already judged them in a certain way. So things are changing, and I’m hopeful that we can find ways to work together.”
Photo: Shervin Lainez
(Reprinted from the June 2019 issue of Downbeat)