Linda May Han Oh is the current buzz on bass, employed by people like Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano. Her own fifth album is her most ambitious, combining a jazz quartet, a string quartet and, on four tracks, a five-person vocal ensemble.
Oh’s body of work as sideperson, bandleader, and composer has been erudite, technical, and meticulous. Aventurine is even more so. She has been working and reworking some of this extremely ornate and intricate material since 2006, when she was a student at the Manhattan School of Music, and she precisely manages its many moving parts. She also uses her instrumentation to create unusual textures, colors, and atmospheres. On the title track, the hovering strings are suspenseful and the voices evoke mysteries.
The downside is that Oh’s compositions often sound like the work of a student—a gifted student, one fascinated by her skill at contrivance. “Lilac Chaser,” as an intellectual exercise, is representative. In four minutes, it proceeds from a metronomic bass anchor to quivering, cycling string figures to a clattering drum groove by Ches Smith to an effusive piano abstraction by Matt Mitchell. Contrast becomes an end in itself. The piece never coheres into something larger.
The upside is that Oh’s manipulations of melody and harmony, and the way she shapes ensemble form, can create unfamiliar beauty. “Rest Your Weary Head,” a simple canon, is first expanded by strings and voices, then opens for improvisation and becomes a dramatic collective incantation. And her two arrangements of jazz standards are bold acts. Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” is recognizable only in flashes before alto saxophonist Greg Ward is wildly unleashed. “Time Remembered” is wholly reimagined and turned darker. Oh takes Bill Evans’ impressionism through myriad iterations of subtle dissonance and segmentation.
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