Linda May Han Oh Reaches Across the Musical Spectrum

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Bassist and bandleader Linda May Han Oh calls Aventurine her most ambitious compositional work to date.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

“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 writing 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 saxophone 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.”

The 14 rich-hued songs on the new album stand out as the most complex of all Oh’s recorded compositions to date. But from a bird’s-eye view of her discography, a growing inclination toward a bigger ensemble sound is clear. On her 2009 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 said. “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 settings, has noted the development of her artistry. Impressed, he likens her writing to that of major jazz innovators: “I see Pat [Metheny] and maybe Chick Corea as the forebears for the type of composing she does. 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 rare career-building opportunity—arose from a chance post-concert encounter.

“I met [Metheny] in 2013 at the Detroit Jazz Festival, and we spoke briefly backstage,” Oh recalled. “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. 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.”

Oh’s conscientiousness as a player extends beyond her work in front of 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 Biophilia, a green record label founded by Almazan in 2011. Through its mission, events and environmentally responsible packaging, the imprint 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 said. “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 also has spoken out about gender bias in the jazz world, a topic that remains at 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 said. “Everyone needs to take a step back and re-evaluate 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 said. “I’m seeing some younger musicians really putting it out there ... . 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.” DB

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