Featuring DAYNA STEPHENS (saxophone), FABIAN ALMAZAN (piano), RUDY ROYSTON (drums) and special guest: JEN SHYU (voice)
With her debut CD, Entry, bassist/composer Linda Oh asserted herself as a unique new voice on the modern jazz scene. On her follow-up, Initial Here, Oh draws deeply upon her rich cultural heritage and broad range of inspirations to further define her musical autobiography.
“This album tells a story about identity,” Oh says. “Cultural identity and musical identity. I wanted to go in a few different directions to explore some more extreme emotions.”
Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and raised in Western Australia, Oh arrived in New York five years ago with a love of jazz, early training in classical bassoon, and an adolescence spent playing electric bass in Aussie rock bands. All of that experience surfaces on Initial Here, from the in-the-tradition ballad playing on “Mr. M” to her buoyant electric basslines on “Deeper Than Happy” and the mournful bassoon woven throughout “Thicker Than Water.
The quartet that Oh assembled to realize this eclectic blend of material are all equally adept at integrating diverse influences. Dayna Stephens is a graduate of both Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and is also a skilled bassist in his own right. Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan was a classmate of Oh’s at the Manhattan School of Music, where the two quickly formed a musical bond; Oh continues to perform in Almazan’s thrilling trio. And Rudy Royston has become the drummer of choice for artists as diverse as powerhouse saxophonist JD Allen, groundbreaking guitarist Bill Frisell, and forward-thinking bassist Ben Allison.
Despite her thoroughly modern sound and individual approach, Oh expresses a deep love for more traditional jazz. That comes to the fore on “Mr. M,” a languid ballad dedicated to Charles Mingus, and on the quartet’s searching rendition of “Come Sunday,” a result of her excursions into playing in church settings.
Still, pieces like “No. 1 Hit,” which takes a sardonic look at the balance between personal expression and popular acceptance, exemplify Oh’s skill at integrating complexity and accessibility, with its sinuous melody and taut rhythmic force. Balance is also key to the paired emotional outpourings of “Deeper Than Sad” and “Deeper Than Happy.” The former is a stunningly moving dirge, while the latter employs Oh’s elastic electric bass on a joyous tune inspired by her infant niece’s ecstatic reaction to a television cartoon.
Family emerges as a major theme on Initial Here. A trip to Malaysia and China to visit long-unseen relatives made an enormous impact on the compositions for the album. It was Oh’s first trip to either country as an adult, and only her second time back in Malaysia since her family relocated to Australia when she was three years old.
“It was an eye-opening trip,” she recalls. “It was nice to go as an adult and to hear the more personal stories that people never would talk about when you were a kid. And we visited Penang, Malaysia, where my great-grandfather was an artist and sculpted a temple. That was really inspiring to see.”
“Thicker Than Water,” which features vocals in Mandarin Chinese and English by the gifted multilingual vocalist Jen Shyu , is the most direct result of that journey. Essentially a duet between Shyu and Oh, emoting soulfully on both bowed bass and bassoon, the piece is a tribute to Oh’s grandmothers and other female forebears. “They had it really tough,” Oh explains. “They went through a lot and here I am playing music for a living. The immigrant mentality of picking up your whole family and moving to another place for a better life is something very deep and special, and I connect with that sense of always having to work harder because of what our family did for us.”
The hope of a better life for one’s family is also central to the jubilant “Desert Island Dream,” which reflects the optimism of the new world offered by Australia in the combination of Almazan’s shimmering Rhodes and Stephens’ wistful tenor. “Little House,” featuring Oh’s agile electric skills, is a wry look back at that move, recalling the home in Perth where the future bassist found the heat and humidity of Malaysia replaced by Australia’s early morning chill. The tune’s frenzied climax features an eruption of strings, showcasing another aspect of Oh’s compositional talents. She has been writing increasingly for a combination of jazz quartet and string quartet, and will debut a new commission for the Jazz Gallery in April.
Oh’s classical influences also make an appearance in the quartet’s impactful rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Something Coming,” from West Side Story. Their take was inspired by the stark version by pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Jeanne Lee. In its final moments, the quartet transitions into a small piece of Stravinsky’s piano work “Les Cinq Doigts (The Five Fingers).”
The opening track, “Ultimate Persona” deals most directly with the idea of personal identity, inspired by the landmark Ingmar Bergman film Persona. It begins the album with a driving rhythmic figure inspired by an Indian polyrhythm cycle. “Persona is such an amazing, powerful film because it goes through so many ups and downs,” Oh says. “I wanted something that intense to start the record. It’s about striving to be something beyond what we are.”
Release Date: May 22, 2012 via Greenleaf Music | eOne Distribution
Linda Oh // Upcoming Shows:
Sat. Feb. 4 – w/ Dave Douglas Group, The Green Mill , Chicago
w/ Douglas, Donny McCaslin, Kenny Werner, Clarence Penn
Tues. Feb. 21 – Sun. Feb. 26 – w/ Fabian Almazan Trio, Village Vanguard , NYC
Wed Feb. 29 – Linda Oh Quartet w/ Fabian Almazan, Dayna Stephens & Rudy Royston, 55 Bar , NYC
Fri. Mar. 2 – Linda Oh Trio w/ Ambrose Akinmusire & Tommy Crane, Rubin Museum , NYC
Fri. Mar. 9 – Linda Oh Quartet, New Brunswick Jazz Project , NJ
w/ Fabian Almazan, Dayna Stephens & Rudy Royston
Fri. April 20 – Sat. April 21 – Linda Oh Group w/ Sirius String Quartet ,
Jazz Gallery Comission (Performance & Live Recording), The Jazz Gallery , NYC
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