Bassist Linda May Han Oh has been busy defying expectations and stereotypes for most of her career. She has played with jazz’s most formidable “star” (Pat Metheny), but she hasn’t seemed to veer toward wanting stardom. She comes from at least two cultures that don’t scream JAZZ and yet she swings like mad. She has a foot in the tricky New Jazz world of Brooklyn, but her music seems different and cut from some other set of fabrics. She doesn’t sing out front like Esperanza Spalding, but she also has added her voice to her bands.
Who is this musician, exactly? Aventurine is not going to help to define this sprawling and fascinating creative musician. At all. It is just going to advance her art.
On the surface, Aventurine is easy to define, as it features a string quartet. But placing this recording in some “third stream”, classical/jazz box isn’t right at all. First of all, the rhythm section here is a creative and daring one: Oh’s bass, plus Ches Smith on percussion (drums and vibes, both) and Matt Mitchell on piano. Second, the septet is turned to eight by the addition of Greg Ward’s alto and soprano saxophones. Which is not to say that the string quartet doesn’t add a composed, orchestrated feeling to the date. It’s just that Oh has pulled off that rare thing: a hybrid of string quartet writing and “jazz” composition in which the music pushes and pulls both ways. This is not jazz sweetened by some strings or classical music pasted up with some swing.
“Lilac Chaser” demonstrates how much range this configuration of musicians can offer. The opening is modern composed string music, harmonically consonant but free, supplemented by Smith’s vibes and Oh’s electric bass. As the string writing moves in and out of some gnarliness, Smith shifts to skittering drums and Ward starts adding lines on alto sax. Mitchell sits out until it’s time for a fanciful improvisation that plays around with the composed string parts but also stands on its own. Smith and Mitchell weave and bob in conversation as the leader keeps things grounded in plucked double-stops. It is a puckish piece that delights and dares, equally.
“Rest Your Weary Head” is a two-part composition that shows another kind of range. Mitchell begins the first part playing as a simple written counterpoint that draws in the strings, one by one, and then Oh’s sung voice, saxophone, acoustic bass, and some synthesized textured too. It is gorgeous as it grows more dissonant. Part Two is set up by Oh’s acoustic bass and a whispered answer from Ward’s saxophone, a tentative conversation. When Mitchell and Smith enter in an itchy/pulsing double-time, the whispers continue but now with voices and violin added in a circling game of call and response. Ward is also featured subtly on “Satuit” where he improvises freely out front with just bass and drums providing a loose accompaniment. Stings and piano enter with the written melody, still carried by the alto saxophone. Oh and Mitchell take engaging solos that could even be described as bebop-flavored. Smith and Oh swing like crazy under the piano improvisation, and when the theme returns Ward, and the strings share it more fully. Lovely.
Of course, the double-quartet configuration lends itself to a kind of jazz impressionism as well as post-bop. “The Sirens Are Wailing” places Ward’s soprano saxophone atop a stack of sung and bowed harmonies that surge rather than swing. The groove melts into a tone poem section that is all texture and tingle before Ward is given a sway from the rhythm section over which to play a suitably gentle but modern improvisation. Similarly, the octet is capable of a tender form of classical counterpoint. “Deep Sea Dancers” features a unison written line, initially for sax and piano, then with Oh improvising around the line before she joins the melody as Mitchell solos. Then it is Ward’s turn to wind his horn around piano and bass sharing the melody. The strings enter with a gentle drone of high harmony as the round-robin of improvising begins again, with the quartet’s part growing more dense and complex as drums enter and the soloists take their playing into more modern harmony. It is a chamber piece that—by its end—accelerates into a surging theme for the entire group.
“Song Yue Rao” uses the strings differently. They begin the composition in a repeated fiddle pattern that seems to combine folk music from across cultures—sounding both like Celtic and Asian music at once. Soprano sax and bass join the fun in a dancing groove that is soon played at by the whole band, with the jazz musicians improvising around the hoedown. Also fun in a dancing sense is “Au Privave” (seemingly not the Charlie Parker theme, though I suspect it is hidden in there somewhere), an odd-meter funk tune in the M-Base tradition that finds Ward and Mitchell throwing down flashes of theater in a dueling conversation.
Perhaps the most integrated of all the compositions on Aventurine is “Ebony”, which places the strings quartet and the jazz quartet in the closest and most equal conversation. After opening with a lush introductory statement, the tune builds a toggling theme alternating three notes from Ward’s soprano and three unison notes from the strings that then explodes into a harmonically rich second theme. Upon its repeat, the punching theme is answered only by Mitchell/Oh/Smith, leading to a breathtaking saxophone solo. Underneath that, the strings begin playing Ward’s original three-note motif, but now in harmony.
The last track on the album is an arrangement of Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered”, orchestrated with total originality for strings, piano, and acoustic bass. Oh’s improvisation, perhaps not coincidentally, brings to mind Scott LaFaro, with its melodic flow of freedom. In a sense similar is how Oh adapts Bach counterpoint in “Cancrizan”. Neither of these appropriations seems half as intriguing, however, as Oh’s own compositions, which bloom as both complex adaptations of different forms and as unified pieces of music, developed over time into something round and satisfying.
Linda May Han Oh has been a part of some similar music combining string writing and jazz playing from pianist Fabian Almazan. They are about the same age and come from the Manhattan School of Music masters program. This is just one direction for the New Jazz, a melodic blend of classical and jazz sensibilities that is light, thrilling, engaging, and challenging. Oh’s talent is so wide, however, that it is not the sum of who she is or can be. It seems to be just one of the colors she likes to pain with. Her canvas grows with each new release.