Linda Oh: Snapshots of a Jazz Bassist’s Rise

Linda Oh: Snapshots of a Jazz Bassist’s Rise
Linda Oh
(Photos by Maximilian Motel)

During a recent 80th birthday celebration for Wayne Shorter at Manhattan’s Town Hall, the eminent saxophonist and composer held court with his quartet, whose singular chemistry relies in no small measure on the presence of bassist John Patitucci. Before Shorter’s band went on, bassist Esperanza Spalding, a current and deserving darling of the jazz world, shone while playing demanding arrangements of Shorter tunes in a trio with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. In an opening set, yet another bassist, Linda Oh, commanded attention within Sound Prints, a quintet formed by saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas to play tricky originals inspired by Shorter’s music. Oh’s solos — concise, tuneful, never rote — elicited impassioned applause. More subtly impressive was the rhythm-section cohesion she helped build with pianist Lawrence Fields and drummer Joey Baron, while playing music that often shifted swiftly from boppish swing to trickier rhythms, from tightly arranged passages to freer collective improvisation. 

At 29, Oh should be on everyone’s list of up-and-comers in New York. Her blend of skill and sensitivity is one pleasure of Douglas’s current quintet; the trumpeter’s enthusiasm led him to sign her to his Greenleaf label. I was struck just as much by Oh’s elegant handling of music that embraced jazz, Latin, and Afro-Cuban traditions on pianist Fabian Almazan’s CD, “Personalities.”

Oh straddles several worlds quite naturally. Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and raised in Perth, Australia, she trained first on bassoon, and spent much of her teen years “playing Red Hot Chili Peppers covers in Aussie rock bands,” she said. (Her polished and rhythmically astute debut CD as a leader, 2008’s “Entry,” ends with a smart transformation of that band’s “Soul to Squeeze.”) Her next recording, 2011’s “Initial Here,” was wider ranging. On it, she played both acoustic and electric bass, and even a little bassoon. Almazan figures into that one, as does singer Jen Shyu. Like Shyu, who is of East Timorese and Taiwanese descent, Oh has a fascination with Korean folk music; she plans to travel to South Korea later this year to work with traditional musicians.

When she celebrates the release of “Sun Pictures” (Greenleaf Music) on August 27 at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, Oh will trace a reasonably expansive landscape. In her liner notes, she describes her new tunes as “snapshots of my recent travels and of my experiences playing music” — gigging in various cities and countries, and traveling back to Australia to visit family and friends during times off. Here she leads a quartet including saxophonist Ben Wendel, and drummer Ted Poor and guitarist James Muller (the latter, an old friend from Australia). The album is named for what she claims to be “the oldest outdoor movie theater still in operation,” in Broome, a tourist destination in Northwest Australia with a history rooted in pearl diving (Oh’s sister lives there).

“Sun Pictures” came together as does much of the career of a busy young jazz musician in New York City — through interconnecting relationships, sheer determination, and chance. Via email, she and I spoke about this new music, and the arc of her recent career.

It seems like this CD happened as do so many new jazz recordings, through artist initiative, and not record-label planning, right? 

It was a free recording session, and though the studio conditions weren’t ideal it was refreshing to be recording live-to-two-track as opposed to the usual multi-tracked studio session. I’ve never had a label “set-up” a recording of my own — in the past, it has just been a self-funded session at a recording studio. 

When I was presented with the opportunity to record at WKCR [Columbia University’s radio station], I was also offered a gig at the Brooklyn Museum. I decided to get a band together and try some new music. It happened that James Muller was in town and I wanted to play with him. I also wanted to write some music that featured guitar. Ben Wendel and I had played sessions together and we had tried to make some gigs happen, but because of our schedules it never worked out. I was lucky he happened to be in town at that time. Earlier on in the year, Ted Poor had done an amazing job playing on my live string recording at the Jazz Gallery [for expected forthcoming release] and he was available at the time. I had always loved Ted’s playing and we had done some playing with [pianist] George Colligan a while back. He and Ben also had a history playing together since their Eastman [School of Music] days. 

At times it seems like you are really trying to create a dialogue between guitar and sax…

Yes, that was the plan — less of just separate solo sections for individual instruments, more of active trading between sax and guitar. 

What inspired that opening track, “Shutterspeed Dreams,” which I know you made from edits? Did you also do some processing to the sound?

Yes, I had used effects like detuning and some filters on the raw sound, but no virtual instruments. The piece is about dreaming — as if the dream is a series of snapshots, where sometimes the light is so bright that it’s blinding and you can’t open your eyes within the dream.

Clearly, visual images are significant for your music, including the work of painters. Did any piece in particular inspire the song “Blue Over Gold,” which your liner notes describe as inspired by Mark Rothko?

There was one Untitled painting — the colors are blue over gold (some might say a bit more orange than gold). The blue segment has a black border outlining it. Was I “trying to ask the investment in a single form” — no. The colors in the opening to me represent an array of golds, greens, and blues. I've always associated pitches with color. The opening notes G and E — for me, G is gold/yellow, while E is green. The harmony F#-D-F# is dark blue (a little more purple than F though), and D is light brown color. 

There have been very strong connections throughout history between visual art and music. It is not something I think constantly about, though I would like to experiment with those ideas. I draw more connections specifically with music and colors, though I wouldn’t say I am a synesthete.

One new tune, “Polyphonic HMI,” is named for a music analysis company that pioneered “Hit Song Science” software. Considering also companies like Spotify and Rhapsody, do you think we are beginning to lose something important about the experience of music as a listener? Does your tune in any way reference that algorithm?

The structure does not relate to any algorithm used by Polyphonic HMI. I just wanted to write a strong tune with a sense of drama. The two sections were composed independently, and I felt they worked well together as an interesting narrative, starting with a dramatic, almost a “warning signal,” of a melody, shifting to the more mellow B section that accelerates and falls apart. 

There are other companies like Polyphonic HMI, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are already working with Spotify and Rhapsody. With this technology I don’t think it’s the “experience” that will be lost as a listener — it’s more other issues that concern me. The point of the algorithms is to predict what may be a commercial success, or create music for the purpose of commercial success. This testing system may determine what we get bombarded by on radios and on the Internet. If something tests as a hit song, most likely there will be people within the music business who would be willing to invest in the song financially.

If this is the way of the future, then there will be a lot of beautiful and interesting music that will not reach bigger audiences (even more so than now) and I feel there will be less risks taken within the music business to support a new unique voice. Even now, there are people in the music business who rely on how many “Facebook likes” a musician has before they would even give the music a listen. We have the choice as individual, conscious beings to expose ourselves to as much music as we like and decide for ourselves what moves us and what we perceive as good music. We don’t have to be just another anonymous number that makes up the general public.

Your albums to date each bear different instrumentation and a different sound. What, for you, are the unifying elements or approaches between these projects?

For each group on each album I had different approaches to the compositions. I like to think that when I compose I need some sense of drama or narrative within the composition. With most of these compositions I try to have a clear intent, though still just a framework to allow the musicians to create something different within the moment. Some of the tunes have underlying rhythmic structures that are the basis of the tune, some more dramatic than others, and some of them have a sense of humor or quirkiness, which I like to have sometimes. There is often an element in some of the tunes that for me is quite deeply personal, things I can more easily share through music than through words.

How does the challenge of working in Sound Prints compare to other bands you’ve worked in? How did its inspiration — Wayne Shorter’s music — enter your life?

Sound Prints was the first time that I worked within a band where most of the group were musicians from another generation. It’s different from working with your peers and initially, it’s easy to feel that you need to play in a certain way — i.e. how you think they want you to sound — rather than just being yourself and letting the music happen.

I first got into Wayne Shorter actually through Weather Report, when I was really into Jaco Pastorius, and then I worked back from there to the Miles Davis quintet, then to his own albums like “Adam’s Apple” and “Schizophrenia.” I loved and still continue to love his compositions and his seemingly uninhibited concept of improvisation.

How did the relationship with Dave Douglas begin? What have you learned from him, both about making music on the bandstand and related things off of it?

I met Dave at the Banff Centre in 2007 when he was running the Jazz and Creative Improvisation Workshop. In 2009, I was a part of the Carnegie Hall Weill professional development workshop that he was running that year. Since then, he asked me to play on a few dates and to tour with his Tea for Three band. Around that time, I had recorded my second record and asked Dave if he’d be into releasing it, which he was.

Dave is an inspiring person. Many people who know and work with him can easily testify that he is probably one of the most active and hard-working people around. If he’s not writing new music, he’s probably running a marathon, organizing a workshop, or curating a festival, all on top of running a record label and leading his own bands.

On the bandstand, Dave has pretty specific concepts with each tune and is very particular about tempos, which is understandable because tempos really are an integral part of how a tune feels; that’s something I’ve been more of aware of when playing with other bands. I learned a lot from him and also the Greenleaf team, mainly that it’s not enough recording and releasing an album and trying to get good press. A lot of it is good time management, good communication, and being constantly active. His tenacious and pro-active attitude is always an inspiration. 

Of course, there are others who have influenced me. Joe Lovano is one of the loveliest people around and his calm, warm personality is contagious and none of the minor things that bother many people never seem to phase him. Joey Baron is one of the funniest people, and besides being a great musician he’s a great magician. I think Joey’s one of those people who will never seem to age because of his vivacious and positive personality. Other people who have influenced me a lot are Kenny Barron (who is also to me one of those ageless people) and bassist Greg Cohen, who always helps me step back and see the bigger picture. 

What other bands or connections have most marked your development since coming to New York?

I look back on some of the relationships I’ve developed with my peers and I’m very thankful to work with so many talented musicians who are also good friends, and who have really pushed me to grow. One of my favorite groups to play in is with Fabian Almazan — both his trio and his group with strings. We went to Manhattan School of Music together. The beauty of his compositions and his playing have really been important to me. Also, as a bass player I feel like the drummers I’ve had the opportunity to play with regularly here and develop a relationship with here have really influenced me (Rudy Royston, E.J. Strickland, Ted Poor, Justin Brown, Johnathan Blake, Henry Cole, just to name a few).

You were born in Malaysia and raised in Perth, Australia. Do you have relatives in both places, and have you spent much time in Malaysia, too?

My parents are Malaysian-born Chinese: my mother’s side is mainly in Malaysia, my dad’s is mainly in Australia. I’ve only been back twice since I left when I was 3, but hope to go back sooner than later.

Is there a jazz scene or community in Australia that you and James Muller benefited from?

James is from Adelaide, but was based in Sydney for quite a few years. I’m from Perth, so we met at the James Morrison Scholarship Competition when I was 17 and he was in the backup band (a competition started by its namesake, multi instrumentalist James Morrison). I think each city has a specific scene. I was lucky in Perth to have quite a few musicians who inspired me, people who were extremely proficient on their instruments, and some who really pushed me. 

Your mention of working with traditional musicians in South Korea made me think of Jen Shyu, who is on your previous CD. Did she influence that interest? Why South Korea? What sparked that interest and what do you hope to learn?

I’m going specifically to play at the Gwang Ju Festival with Young-Chi Min (who plays jang-gu, a traditional drum), Young-Na Kim (who plays Haegeum, a three-stringed fiddle), pianist Hakuei Kim, and Simon Barker, a drummer from Sydney. For those who haven’t seen the documentary “Intangible Asset No. 82,” I highly recommend it. [Note: In that wonderful film, Simon Barker searches for an enigmatic Korean shaman, Kim Seok-Chul, a man he believes to be one of the world’s great improvisers.]

The story is beautifully documented and filmed by Emma Franz, who is a fellow Perth musician I met on a gig years ago. It is a great example of dedication and crossing cultural boundaries into new and exciting frontiers. Simon is an amazing and unique musician, and the Korean musicians — Kim Seok-Chul, Bae Il-Dong, and Kim Dong-Won — are outstanding. The openness from these musicians to share and teach is beautiful.

I’m currently looking at some of the traditional Korean Rhythms, I think the music is amazing and looking at these rhythms will make this collaboration much more interesting. It was a coincidence that Jen is currently in Seoul, studying.

Why am I interested in Korean music as opposed to Chinese or Malaysian Traditions? Well, I’m Malaysian-Chinese musician who grew up in Australia, playing American jazz music. Jen is an American of East-Timorese and Taiwanese descent studying Korean music and just recently studied in Indonesia. I guess the answer is that it is that this music interests me, and already in my interactions with Simon, Dong-Won, and Bae, they’ve been so open and giving with their information. [Korean pansori singer Bae il Dong and percussionist Kim Dong Won, two of the main protagonists in “Intangible Asset #82”] Not that Chinese or Malay music doesn’t interest me — this is a just a choice right now. Also the concept of collaborating with musicians from another field for this concert in Gwangju is really exciting for me. More collaborations between jazz and other music interest me.