Linda May Han Oh: Walking the Balance

July 19, 2017

The title of Linda may Han Oh’s walk against the Wind captures her fantastic journey: from playing Joan Jett covers in an Australian rock band as a teen to becoming an A-list acoustic bassist in the jazz capital of the world in her 20s. Oh’s penchant for choosing the path of greater challenges stems from her innate curiosity about how music works—but the rich skill sets she’s gained as a result has led her to anchor highflying units fronted by horn men Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano, pianist Kenny Barron, and most recently, guitarist Pat Metheny. Metheny shares his observations on Oh on his website: “Linda has everything I always am looking for; great time, great notes, and a lot of imagination. Most important, she has an elusive and hard-to-describe quality that embodies a certain communicative ability to connect—not just to the other musicians, but to the audience, as well.”

That quality is the key to Wind, Oh’s fertile fourth solo project. It features guitarist Matthew Stevens (Esperanza Spalding), drummer Justin Brown (Thundercat), and saxophonist Ben Wendel (Kneebody) in near-telepathic conversation on 11 originals that draw in the listener through both melodic heft and rhythmic intrigue. Linda also expands her sonic palette, playing bass guitar on five tracks and providing wordless vocals on two. “Each of the tunes is very personal to me,” she allows, “as they reflect my life and the varied experiences I’ve been blessed to have in my musical career.”

Linda May Han Oh was born in Malaysia and moved with her parents and two older sisters to Perth, Australia, at age three. A year later, she began classical piano lessons and transitioned to clarinet and bassoon in school. Her sister’s eclectic record collection, which featured everything from Miles Davis and Weather Report to Jeff Buckley and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, tuned her ears to bass. A music-loving uncle got her a knockoff Korean bass guitar when she was 15, and she was soon playing in local rock bands and the high school jazz combo, while gathering the influences of Flea, Les Claypool, John Paul Jones, Jaco Pastorius, and Meshell Ndegeocello. An interest in jazz and the upright endeavors of Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Charlie Haden, and Dave Holland—as well as the inspiration of local talent like Jeff “Tain” Watts saxophonist Troy Roberts and current Yellowjackets bassist Dane Alderson—led her to Perth’s Western Australian Acadamy of Performing Arts to study acoustic bass.

Oh’s first visits to New York came via the Sisters In Jazz program. She then successfully auditioned at the Manhattan School of Music, made the major move north, and in 2008 completed her masters degree. Lessons with Holland, Todd Coolman, Rufus Reid, Greg Cohen, and Jay Anderson further prepared her for the Gotham jazz scene (Downbeat chose her as Acoustic Bass Rising Star in 2010), as she began racking up recordings and gigs with Steve Wilson, Vijay Iyer, Greg Osby, Geri Allen, and Terri Lyne Carrington.

First bitten by the writing bug as a preschool Yamaha Music School piano student—“They taught us to hear music as emotion and think of music as colors, and they encouraged us to compose little themes and developments”—Oh got more serious about composing at WAAPA, participated in the BMI Film Composers Workshop at Skywalker Ranch, and won the ASCAP Young Composers Award in 2008. She followed her aptly named, critically acclaimed 2009 debut, Entry (with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire), with equally lauded sophomore and junior efforts, with but two cover tunes in the bunch. Walk Against the Wind is another forward step for Oh’s rising, resounding voice as a composer, bassist, and global-minded upright citizen. That was the jumping off point for our Facetime interview between stops on the European leg of Pat Metheny’s spring tour.

Has your electric playing informed your upright playing, and vice versa?

Yes. I purposely try to apply concepts from one instrument to the other, like playing across the strings on the upright rather than vertically. I’m also conscious of keeping my left-hand 3rd finger in shape, because I mainly use it on the electric only. It’s not easy to transition from one to the other, because the touches are so different; for me it requires some mental preparation.

I don’t have the biggest hands, so for the first electric bass arpeggio on “Western” [at 0:26], which is F#–C–D–G, I played the F# [14th fret E string] with my middle finger, the C [15th fret A string] with my ring finger, and then I used my [left] thumb to get the D and G harmonics at the 12th fret of those strings. That’s a case of borrowing from the upright thumb position and using open strings to get around the fingerboard. Ultimately, though, my goal is to have the same musical voice on both instruments.

How did the new album come together, and what was your concept?

The genesis was a group of musicians I’ve played my music with regularly over the past few years: Ben, Matt, and Justin. We workshopped much of the material on gigs around town, mostly at 55 Bar. The songs range from sketches that are open to group interpretation, to more arranged pieces, but they’ve all evolved through the live-playing process.

The concept and title comes from the great mime Marcel Marceau. When I teach or do clinics, I encourage students to look at the bigger picture, because it’s easy to get bogged down by classes and combos and grades. So I’ll play a clip of Marceau imitating an alto sax and a trombone trading solos with each other. It demonstrates not only the importance of nonverbal communication in the art of improvisation, but it presents the bigger picture—Marceau used his gifts to help Jewish children fleeing from the Nazis in World War II, and later he influenced artists like Michael Jackson. The title also refers to how choosing the more difficult path is often more fruitful in the long run.

“Firedancer” establishes the band’s rapport for improvisational dialoguing.

That was one of the newer songs we workshopped, but our ability to quickly find our places and begin communicating within the music is definitely a band strong point. I wanted “Firedancer” to be more of an organic piece, as opposed to, “this is the head, this is the solo section,” so I have the melody and an open collective section. The song is inspired by a clip of Brazilian firedancers on the street, which my friend, sociologist/filmmaker Sabrina McCormick, showed me. I’ve scored a couple of her short films. The bass melody represents the dancers’ feet, and the accents by the rest of the band are the cars whizzing by her.

Your electric bass and wordless vocals make their debut on “Speech Impediment.”

The song is based on a fictional story about a man trying to tell a woman he loves her, but he can’t verbalize it because he has a bad stutter, so he finds other ways to show her his love. I wanted to convey that we should look beyond the exterior of people to see the interior, as that’s the most important part. I play some palm-muted notes and chords on bass to allude to his impediment, and my vocal serves as an additional color at the joyous moment when the woman recognizes his feelings and is reciprocating. While I encourage my students to vocalize melodies to internalize them, I haven’t sung much since my early rock band days, but I’m working on it again.

How did you approach which bass to use on the songs?

Some songs were written with electric bass in mind for a specific sound and feel, like “Speech Impediment,” “Western,” and “Midnight,” which have chordal elements. Others are interchangeable when we play them live. Other than a brief appearance on my second album, this is the biggest role my electric bass playing has had—almost half the album.

“Western” has a canon or round element.

The sax and the guitar play the melody, and then when the bass and drums join in to play it the second time through, we’re two beats ahead of the sax and guitar, so we have to stick to our guns, so to speak. “Western” was inspired by spaghetti western scores, and it’s more of a sketch or lead-sheet-type tune with a twisty melody, like “Perpluzzle,” which the liner notes describe as Escher-esque.

The title track pivots on two rhythmically interesting halves.

Several of my pieces can be felt in multiple ways, almost like an aural Rorschach test. I try to add elements that give the listener different perspectives. “Ikan Billis” is like that, too. Here, the guitar starts with a figure that can be heard as a quarter-note pulse in a two-bar phrase. Then the bass doubles that melody, while also playing a tumbao-like figure in-between, which reveals that the guitar melody is actually dotted quarter-notes in a three-bar phrase [See music, opposite page]. In the second, more triumphant-sounding section, which represents pushing against the wind, the dotted quarter-note becomes a half-note, making it feel faster. The piece alternates between those two sections to create a constant balance, which is a lot like life.

You’re known for polyrhythms and odd meters. How did you develop those skills?

I’ve long been drawn to them; for my honors degree in college, I did a thesis on Dave Holland’s music and his use of odd meters and North Indian tabla music. When playing with other musicians, I’ve always been interested in learning the polyrhythmic concepts and cross-rhythms they use. On gigs, I’ll ask drummers and pianists about what they’re playing, and I’ll make my own little work study from it. I have a notebook where I write everything down, and then I practice from it.

The closer, “Midnight,” has a rock vibe.

That’s my rock tune, with Fabian Almazan guesting on keyboards. When I was writing it, I joked that it was my tribute to Tool. There’s a contrapuntal aspect, as the bass and sax play two different melodies at the same time. Then Justin and I rock out in support of Matt’s solo in the open section, and we close with an angst-filled rubato section that Ben blows over. In the mix we added overdrive to my bass and the keyboards, for an edge. I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan as a kid, and in high school I wanted to be Flea.

Your longest-running support role has been your two bands with trumpeter Dave Douglas.

Primarily with Dave I play in his quartet, with [saxophonist] Jon Irabagon, [pianist] Matt Mitchell, and [drummer] Rudy Royston, who often plays in my band. Dave writes music that’s beautiful, at times quirky, and the band is always ready to jump in the deep end. The other band with Dave is Soundprints, with [saxophonist] Joe Lovano, [drummer] Joey Baron, and [pianist] Lawrence Fields. Joey is one of my drum idols; he has such an energy and curiosity. We get to soundchecks early and play through tunes and talk. And Joe is such a musical presence. He’s similar to [pianist] Kenny Barron, who I’m also fortunate to work with, in that their spirit and enthusiasm for the music brings out the best in your playing. Offstage, Joe is like the classic jazz cat, with great road stories; his eyes light up when he talks about Coltrane.

How did you come to play with Pat Metheny?

I met Pat at the 2013 Detroit Jazz Festival, where Soundprints was opening for his Unity Band. I saw him in the meal area, and he was very nice and complimentary to me. The next time I saw him was at the same event in 2015, and he came over and asked if I had ever gotten his email, and I said, “What email?” He said he had written to ask if I wanted to get together to play! To this day I don’t know what happened to that email, but I apologized. Soon after, I went to his place to play some standards and some of his tunes. Then we played with Antonio Sanchez. I thought, well, those are two jams I’ll always remember, and then he called and offered me a role in his new quartet.

What material are you playing on tour?

We’ve been covering a range of material from Pat’s career: songs from albums like Bright Size Life, Offramp, Still Life (Talking), Letters From Home, and Question and Answer. Plus, we’ve been playing a few new tunes from an upcoming album we recorded in December. I’m playing mostly upright in the shows, but also my Marcus Miller Jazz Bass on songs like “Midwestern Nights Dream” and “Song for Bilbao.” There’s a pretty even balance of solos among us; I usually take one on “Unity Village” or “Sirabhorn.”

How would you define your role on the support side?

A key for me is realizing that a number of these songs, like “Have You Heard,” “James,” “Are You Going With Me,” “Last Train Home,” and “So It May Secretly Begin” are so well known, and the bass lines are such an integral part of the compositions, that I need to play them pretty much as recorded. So it’s been about finding the balance between sticking to a solid foundation and having the freedom to improvise behind the soloists. I’ve discovered there are certain tunes that require more of a bass function to allow Pat and [pianist] Gwilym [Simcock] greater freedom to create on top. I’m learning about aspects of tension and release, as well as how to play in the larger halls and different-size venues we’re encountering.

Has Pat been communicative about what he wants from the bass?

Pat has a strong musical vision, and he’s very articulate about what he wants. For example, in the duo context, sometimes we play “How Insensitive,” and what he needs is someone who’s solid with time while also having an edge to their pulse, so he can have the freedom to lay back without compromising the time. He might suggest I play more of a root function, which allows him to open up the harmony in different ways. He appreciates players who can go with him but at the same time establish the foundation and the tempo; especially on ballads with a rubato vibe, that needs a center. I also feel from his comments to us that a good solo is about playing melodies and the intent, rather than playing a lot of notes.

What lies ahead for you, and what kind of advice can you offer?

I’ll be releasing a trio record with [trumpeter] Ambrose Akinmusire and [drummer] Tyshawn Sorey, and I’ve written music for sax, bass, piano, drums, and string quartet that I’ll be recording this year. I’m not sure when the album with Pat will come out. I’ve found maintaining both a solo career and a sideman career is optimal for me; they each present the kinds of challenges I like to take on. As for advice, stay open and stay curious. That’s the best way to broaden your skills and your playing and working opportunities.

MAY OH CLINIC

One of the most intriguing compositions on Walk Against the Wind is “Deepsea Dancers.” Oh, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and saxophonist Ben Wendel play Linda’s Chinese folk music-inspired melody, and then they take turns soloing, while the other two continue to play the melody. The soloists are instructed to improvise around the melody in its Eb major tonal center. The twist is there are underlying, ominous chord changes that aren’t heard until the last part of the track. Example 1 shows the melody written for bass guitar an octave lower than Oh plays it on upright. Explains Linda, “There’s a harmonic buildup to the dark final chord, which negates the original Eb tonality, but it’s gradual—sort of like being underwater and focusing on what’s in front of you, but something large and threatening is looming in the background, and it finally comes into focus and sweeps you away.” As Oh does on the track, try playing the melody and soloing off it. Then gradually introduce notes from the chord changes into your solo passes.

Example 2 contains the A section upright line of “Walk Against the Wind,” which reveals Oh’s proclivity for polyrhythms. Linda first doubles the opening guitar line (the stem-up notes) and then adds the tumbao-like bass line (stem-down notes), in what sounds like overdubbed bass parts. “The part came from practicing polyrhythms—tapping one rhythm while playing another. Internalize the top line first, and then the bottom line, and try putting them together. The key to playing both lines at once is to play the D as an open string, which allows you to shift up and grab the high E and the bass note F.”

INFO

ISTEN

Solo projects Walk Against the Wind [2017, Biophilia], Sun Pictures [2013, Green Leaf], Initial Here [2012, Green Leaf], Entry [2009, CD Baby]; Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas/Soundprints Live at Monterey Jazz Festival [2015, Blue Note]; Dave Douglas Quintet Brazen Heart [2015, Green Leaf]

EQUIP

Upright German Pfretzschner, circa 1900, converted by David Gage to have a removable neck for travel; D’Addario Zyex strings with a Pirastro Oliv G string; David Gage Realist pickup (used along with a DPA 4099 mic); Frenchstyle carbon fiber bow
Electric basses Fodera NYC 5-string; Fender Marcus Miller Jazz Bass; D’Addario EXL-170 Nickel Round Wound strings
Amps Acoustic Image Clarus Series 4 two-channel head with Aguilar GS 112 cabinet
Recording Walk Against the Wind Upright: Neumann U 47, RCA 77-DX & Telefunken ELAM 251E mics; electric: miked Ampeg B-15 and direct via an Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp/DI

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