Linda May Han Oh: Presence

Australian-raised bassist delivers technique, feeling and that indescribable something extra

Linda May Han Oh (photo by Shervin Lainez)
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Linda May Han Oh (photo by Jati Lindsay)
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When bassists become bandleaders, they must choose: How much should they hang back in their familiar role as part of the rhythm section and how much should they step forward in a more assertive role? As Linda May Han Oh began work on her fourth album as a bandleader, Walk Against Wind (Biophilia), the decision was especially tough because she’s so good at both tasks.

Playing behind saxophonist Joe Lovano, trumpeter Dave Douglas or clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, for example, she bolsters the bottom end with muscular parts that resemble compositional lines while always staying in the pocket. But when those leaders nod to her for a solo, she doesn’t make the mistake of so many bassists who merely play their supporting patterns faster and louder. Instead, Oh shifts gears and creates a solo that is shaped like a vocal.

You could hear this when Pat Metheny brought his new quartet to Maryland’s Strathmore Music Center in January. The guitarist had retained drummer Antonio Sanchez from his Unity Group and had added Oh and British pianist Gwilym Simcock. Because her parts were so comfortably settled in the pulse of each song, it was easy to overlook the rich tone and melodic invention of the notes she was playing behind Metheny’s solos. But when she took her first solo, on the ballad “Unity Village,” her tuneful phrases demanded attention, brimming with emotion and pausing for breath as if she were a singer.

Oh, 32, is a small woman, her size accentuated by the huge contrabass leaning against her—and that contrast makes the power of her playing that much more surprising. After some frustrating years in New York, where she often played clubs with no place to plug in, she started going to a gym to build her arm strength. Now her parts break through the overall hum and make themselves felt in any situation.

“It’s all about clarity,” she insisted. “I’m always asking myself, ‘How can I assert myself without destroying the identity of the tune?’ I purposefully use basslines that aren’t just root-fifth but are root-third and root-seventh. That’s a signature of mine. There are times when the bass can be ambiguous in its movement, but at other times you need clarity. If you’re constantly creating tension and ambiguity, where is the release? The key is being intentional about what I play. You should never use ambiguity as a cover for not knowing the changes. As a teacher, I can spot that right away.”

At the Strathmore, her dark, straight hair fell far down the back of a black dress flecked with white quadrangles. Near the end of the show, Sanchez and Simcock left the stage so Oh and Metheny could play an unaccompanied duet on “How Insensitive.” As the two musicians traded improvisations on Jobim’s melancholy melody, it became clear that their playing shared a similarly buoyant singing quality. “I had grown up listening to Pat when I was a kid in Perth,” Oh said. “I could tell even then that he was a very thoughtful musician. To learn all this music that other bassists have recorded—by my heroes like Larry Grenadier, Marc Johnson and Jaco—was a challenge, but I rose to it.”

“Linda is exactly right for me right now,” Metheny said, “because she embodies the kind of listening that I always love, but that I am particularly looking for at this moment. Simply put, she is one of the most exciting new musicians I have heard in a long time on her instrument. She has all the things you want: great time, a really big and yet dynamic sound, a fantastic harmonic sense and real facility on the instrument.

“But in the end, that isn’t what did it for me. She has an indescribable presence in the music that is really hard to find. She owns the space around the notes she plays in ways that really add up to something more than the notes and sounds. There is a transcendent thing happening there that is really what makes music music.”

A few weeks earlier, visiting New York for Winter Jazzfest, I spent the afternoon with Oh in her Harlem apartment. In a room crowded with musical instruments belonging to her and her fiancé, keyboardist Fabian Almazan, we sat by a window, drank tea and discussed how the ear-grabbing themes on her new album are almost always announced by her bass. The fundamental melody is often doubled by the tenor saxophone of Ben Wendel or, less often, the guitar of Matthew Stevens, but it is her own instrument that initiates the conversation by prompting everyone around her to respond. “The tunes for this album are more bass-oriented,” she conceded. “I wanted something that gave me more responsibility in the group. It takes the pressure off the other musicians if I’m taking the melody, so they’re free to do other things.”

“Perpluzzle,” for example, boasts surging phrases over a propulsive rhythm. The brisk, ascending theme is stated first by Oh’s electric bass, her wordless vocal and Wendel’s saxophone. Stevens and drummer Justin Brown counter the theme with push-and-pull rhythms and rougher textures. The whole thing sounds Metheny-esque. “I felt that myself when I recorded it,” she agreed, “though I wasn’t conscious of it when I was writing. Pat is so good at voice leading in harmony, which pushes that tune forward. There’s nothing introspective about ‘Perpluzzle’; it’s a fun, crazy thing, an experiment in soloing on different platforms in places where you wouldn’t expect solos.”

One of the most striking compositions on the new record is “Deepsea Dancers,” which opens with an arresting descending theme, initially played by Oh alone. Then Wendel doubles the tune on tenor, then Stevens joins the theme and finally Brown. When each instrument solos over the repeating theme, it emphasizes the horizontal melody more than the vertical harmony. Only at the end of the number does the harmony open up through a series of improvised duets. The piece’s brooding aura of loss is confirmed by Oh. “A few winters back,” she revealed, “my manager, Izumi Uchida, died unexpectedly. As Asian women we understood each other, because we’d had similar experiences in the industry. I’d never had anyone that close to me die before, and it affected me. I wanted to write something contemplative about the brevity of life—almost like a folk melody.” She scatted the theme. “I wanted it to develop very slowly; nothing gets ‘out’ until the end, almost like a camera deepening focus. This was more about a journey where you start in one place and end up in another. I like that it takes its time.

“As a child, I learned the Yamaha Method on the piano—not unlike the Suzuki method on the violin—and we were taught to think of each pitch as a different color. C was neutral, D was brown, E was green, F was blue, G was yellow, A was purple and B was a browny yellow. I wrote this in E-flat, green/brown, and that suggested the deep sea to me.”

The new album’s title track opens with Oh’s upright bass and Stevens’ effects-laden guitar sketching out the changes. Wendel introduces the attractive melody, which is soon juxtaposed against the guitar’s exaggerated delay. Soon the stately opening has accelerated into a tussle of rumbling instruments until it seems that the sax is indeed leaning into a strong headwind. “Matt’s lines are very different from the way Ben and I play lines,” Oh said, “and I like that contrast. I’d never written for a guitar until these last two albums, but being on tour with Pat, I’m very aware of that timbre now. There’s so much that can be discovered with texture, especially with Matt, who thinks so much about his settings.”

“I had my AC30 Vox amp pretty cranked,” Stevens explained, “and I brought a few analog pieces of gear, like a tape delay. There are chord symbols on the chart, not voicings, so I just voiced them the way they made sense to me.

“Her music is very challenging,” he added with a laugh. “That’s not to say that challenging music is always good music; just because something is really hard to play doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. When it’s good, it has the same qualities as simpler music that’s also good: strong melodies and an emotional pull. With her, there was always a payoff to the challenge; it’s never just art for art’s sake. It’s not just, ‘Whew, we got through this’; it’s, ‘Man, that was fun.’”

Walk Against Wind will be the first album to feature her full name, Linda May Han Oh, on the cover. She was born to Chinese parents in Malaysia, but when she was 3, the family moved to Perth, on Australia’s West Coast; she was given the name Linda then, to help her assimilate. Though her previous records and most of her public appearances have used “Linda Oh” as her professional moniker, she has increasingly used the four-word version of her name in her personal life, in her composition credits and on grant applications. It seemed time to use it everywhere.

“I don’t feel I’m ‘changing’ my professional name, even if in effect that is what it is,” she explained by email. “May Han is such a huge part of who I am that I don’t feel like I’m changing anything, though I realize it may not be how I’m known by many people.”

In a public written statement, she elaborated: “A part of me doesn’t mind—if it makes people feel more ‘correct,’ then Linda May Han Oh is good. Some people seem to demand that I choose one name, [but such a demand] can in effect force people of cultures where multiple names are common into a box saying that you must decide what is your one real name. … In all honesty, it just makes me feel good to see the ‘May Han’ portion on the cover of the album.”

The emotional grounding of Oh’s compositions comes partly from the pop music of her adolescence. Her sister May Chin was five years older and brought home records by Tool, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine. When the younger sister wondered who had influenced all those bands, she discovered it was someone named Jaco Pastorius. And who influenced him? Someone named Ray Brown.

Linda studied classical piano and bassoon, and in high school she taught herself electric bass so she could join a rock band called E-Day Fix. When she heard Brown playing “Night Train” with Oscar Peterson, she decided to learn the contrabass too. Soon she shifted her emphasis from classical and rock to jazz. “In my classical lessons,” she recalled, “I was told to learn a piece for a competition and to play it faster, cleaner. I never had time to really analyze a piece to understand what made it beautiful, what the composer was going for. Jazz gave me more freedom; it allowed me to develop my own voice, to improvise in all these different contexts. I also loved the sound and the gravity of the bass—those deep, rich tones and the responsibility the bass had in a band.”

Perth is a big enough city to have a jazz community but small enough that you can easily meet everyone on the scene. And once you prove yourself a competent bassist, there are lots of gigs available. Soon Oh was gigging steadily, even as she was studying contrabass at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where she graduated with honors.

Meanwhile, she was attracting enough attention Stateside to be invited to the annual IAJE [International Association for Jazz Education] conference several times. She took advantage of her first trips to the U.S. to take lessons with Greg Cohen and Rufus Reid. Having dipped her toe in the American jazz world, she decided to dive in. “I knew I wanted to play jazz and learn more about it,” she remembered, “and when that drives you, you have to come to New York and test the waters. So I came to Manhattan College at age 22, just after my birthday in the fall, to get my doctorate. I got a student visa, which made it easier to come here. I learned a lot, but I’m troubled by the rising cost of college. It’s inhumane to shoulder kids with so much debt. Will we end up with only rich kids studying jazz? That doesn’t seem right.”

She has lived in New York ever since, though she still misses Australia whenever she reads a Tim Winton novel or hears a Midnight Oil song. She tries to go home every year or so, but she is worried that such travel may be complicated by the new reactionary administration in the U.S.

She did title one of her new compositions “Ikan Bilis,” after the Malay word for anchovy, in memory of eating Nasi Lemak, a Malayan dish of anchovies, coconut, rice, peanut, pepper and boiled egg. But she says that Malayan and Chinese culture haven’t impacted her music very much; a typical Commonwealth kid under the sway of Anglo-American culture, she was more influenced by Miles Davis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Soon after she graduated from Manhattan College, she released her first album under her own name, 2009’s Entry, a trio date with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire. The project featured eight original compositions and a version of the Chili Peppers’ “Soul to Squeeze,” dedicated to her sister.

After she joined the Dave Douglas Quintet, the leader offered her a deal with his label, Greenleaf Records, which released 2012’s Initial Here, a quartet date with Almazan, saxophonist Dayna Stephens and drummer Rudy Royston. Jen Shyu added vocals to a few tracks, a foreshadowing of Oh’s emergence this year as a recording vocalist. Greenleaf also released 2013’s Sun Pictures, a quartet session with Wendel, drummer Ted Poor and guitarist James Muller. When Poor moved to Seattle and Muller back home to Australia, Oh’s new lineup gelled around Almazan, Stevens, Wendel and Brown.

Oh first met Metheny at the Detroit Jazz Festival when she traveled there with the Douglas Quintet. They kept in touch, and early in 2016, she got the call to join Metheny’s group. “As I was getting ready to launch this new band,” Metheny recalled, “after a pretty extensive search, Linda really rose to the top as the best choice on bass. She has a kind of presence that invites her listeners to follow the details of her story as she spins it; there’s a narrative depth to her soloing and her accompaniment. Additionally, like Gwilym and Antonio, she comes with a real deep knowledge of my thing from her early days as a musician. She told me she came of age listening to my trio record with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes, Question and Answer.

“Somehow, whoever I hire—whether it’s Linda, Ben [Williams], Jaco, Dave, Christian McBride, Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow or the rest—the bass player always winds up having a special impact on the band’s personality. I have been really lucky in the bass department over the years. Like really, really, really lucky.”

Oh performed twice at this year’s Winter Jazzfest in Greenwich Village. She shared the bass duties with Trevor Dunn during a 12-person recreation of Thelonious Monk’s 1965 Solo Monk album. She was the only bassist for the 10-person all-star jazz band backing singer, guitarist and banjoist Sam Amidon, on new arrangements of old-time American hymns and folk songs. In both cases, someone had to pull together under-rehearsed bands playing unfamiliar music, and in both instances Oh’s strong bass phrases provided the gravity to keep everyone in the same orbit.

It’s easy to overlook Oh’s crucial role in such situations; after all, she’s short and she usually wears an uncharismatic look of studious concentration. But the musicians know how good she is, and soon anyone who listens to Walk Against Wind will know it too, because her playing is a little more out front, where her remarkable lines are more difficult to ignore. It’s not like she dominates the proceedings, but she does give herself as much time in the foreground as the horn and the chording instruments.

“In a normal setting,” she pointed out, “we don’t all talk at the same time. We take turns between being the speaker and being the listener. I wanted this album to resemble a good conversation, where each of us took turns in the foreground and the background. I think that worked.”