Linda May Han Oh – Walk Against Wind [TrackList follows] – Biophilia BREP0003, 63:28 [4/14/17] ****:
An emerging bassist who wants to make a difference.
(Linda May Han Oh – acoustic bass, electric bass, vocals (tracks 3-4); Ben Wendel – tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens – guitar; Justin Brown – drums; Fabian Almazan – piano (track 2), keyboards (tracks 6, 10); Minji Park – janggu, kkwaenggwari (track 8))
[Streaming and Digital Download-only album]
If you’re a jazz bassist fan, and you haven’t discovered Linda May Han Oh (who previously went by Linda Oh), then you should listen to Oh’s fourth release as a leader, the 63-minute, digital-only album Walk Against Wind. Over the course of Oh’s 11 original compositions, she surveys the personal tests, trials, and profits of an artist’s life. Oh (on both acoustic and electric bass) is complemented by tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel (co-founder of Kneebody and sideman to Todd Sickafoose, Taylor Eigsti and others); guitarist Matthew Stevens (who has recorded with Christian Scott, Jacky Terrasson, Esperanza Spalding and more); drummer Justin Brown (the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet) and special guests: pianist Fabian Almazan (Terence Blanchard) and Korean percussionist Minji Park.
Oh’s inspirations during Walk Against Wind are myriad but essential to enjoying the full contextual underpinning of her material. For example, the title track is an homage of sorts to famed mime Marcel Marceau, who used his pantomime art not only to entertain but to show how there are obscured obstacles, prisons or walls which need to be broken down. During “Walk Against Wind,” Oh and Stevens create a circling duet of bass and guitar, purposefully escalating and then ebbing, from a trudge to tension-tinted moments and back again, while the rhythm section follows suit. The shortest cut, “Firedancer,” has a slight Brazilian stance and was stimulated by dancers with whirling torches as seen in sociologist and filmmaker Sabrina McCormick’s 2006 documentary, Damming Brazil. Oh gets some fine assistance from Almazan, who diverges from classic jazz lines to light Latin sounds, while Oh and Brown craft a supple, cadenced mannerism. The 4:15 “Western” was also obliquely motivated by motion pictures, specifically Oh’s visit to the Sundance Institute’s Composers Lab. Listener’s may not discern it, but “Western” also philosophically draws from the soundtracks for Italian spaghetti westerns, although any connection to Ennio Morricone might not be noticeable.
Individual struggles are evoked in the seven-minute “Speech Impediment,” an instrumental narrative about a man who stutters and strives to express his love for a woman, and features Oh’s wordless vocalizations, which add a unique layer to the arrangement. Oh states that “Speech Impediment” is about how people can be judged by superficial physiognomies rather than what is inside them. During “Speech Impediment” there are some remarkable changes in tone, from intimate to dissonant, from calmness to anger. Family history permeates the seven-minute “Ikan Bilis,” which opens with Brown’s asymmetrical percussion and drumming introduction. That evocative mood is carried out throughout the rest of “Ikan Bilis,” via Almazan’s keyboards, Oh’s moving bass, Wendel’s spirited sax and Stevens’ snaky guitar. The title is Malay for “anchovy,” and refers to Oh’s recollection of her mother’s cooking, in particular Nasi Lemak, a popular anchovies and rice dish. The poignant ballad “Mother Reason” is another track concerning family, and reflects on how a mother always knows when something’s wrong with their son or daughter, and how the best mothers can turn a childhood upheaval into an instance of encouragement or hope.
There are other tunes worth attention. The intricate “Mantis” has a multifaceted rhythmic core supplemented by Park’s use of two traditional Korean percussion instruments, the janggu and kkwaenggwari. The slowly building “Mantis” has a balance of nervousness edged against a melodic lift, and is highlighted by Oh’s bass lines and Wendel’s sax. The deceptively named “Midnight” is an upbeat piece accentuated by Oh’s electric bass, Steven’s lively electric guitar, Almazan’s atmospheric electric keyboards, Wendel’s sax, and a sometimes pressurizing discordance which peaks up and then disappears.
Oh is trying to make a difference in jazz, and as a citizen of the world, opting to give back to the community, fostering unity and fighting intolerance. Those ideas infuse Oh’s music but also her choice of label. The Biophilia imprint doesn’t create CDs; the music is digital-only to decrease the need for physical albums and to be environmentally conscious. Buyers who purchase Walk Against Wind (or other Biophilia records) get a two-sided, fold-out, origami-inspired package with 20 panels of photos, liner notes, credits and a download code. The innovative design’s result has some of the best graphic work in music marketing of the past decade.
Walk Against Wind