Linda May Han Oh plays the bass with authority and power, and she has been playing with the best musicians in jazz for some time now. Most prominent, perhaps, has been her role in the Dave Douglas Quintet, where she is an equal contributor with young masters such as Jon Irabagon, Matt Mitchell, and Rudy Royston. She has also played with Joe Lovano, for instance, and she is currently with jazz star Pat Metheny.
But it is as a composer and leader of her own groups where she shines brightest. Her latest recording is focused on a breathtaking quartet featuring Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone, Matthew Stevens on guitar, and drummer Justin Brown. It’s her finest, most intimate and thrilling work to date. Emotional and raw, full of distinctive songs, Walk Against Wind feels like the record that makes May Han Oh much more than an in-demand collaborator.
May Han Oh’s story is unusual and just what you’d think all at once. Born in Malaysia and raised in Perth, Australia, she wound up getting a master’s degree in music from the Manhattan School in 2008. She competed in the Monk Competition in 2009 (earning an honorary mention), the same year that she released her debut recording, a trio date featuring trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. From the start, she was writing intriguing tunes.
Walk Against Wind is as assured as Michael Jordan in his prime: tricky and galvanizing but smooth and artistic. “Perpluzzle” finds May Han Oh playing electric bass with elastic bounce while singing a wordless harmony that tracks and splits off from Wendel’s written melodic line. Justin Brown’s drums pop for the full four minutes, and the improvising (mostly by Stevens on slightly over-driven electric guitar) is brief, but the song is so engaging that it sounds over before it started. May Han Oh is equally assured on a beautiful ballad like “Mother Reason”. She lets Stevens take the spotlight early, playing chords and melody on a harmonically constrained theme before Wendel blows over the simple chords. She works her acoustic bass below it all, rising up into Stevens’s solo that lets all the players have their say.
Maybe the best thing about this band is how much room they leave each other in the arrangements. The opening track, “Lucid Lullaby”, starts with May Han Oh alone, playing a call-and-response bass line that alternates between grounded obstinate and melody. Brown creeps in, then Stevens sets up the chordal harmony, but they take the trio around a full turn, letting moments of silence cover the gaps in the melody as stated by the bass. Wendel joins in unison with the bass, but silences are still there, and they set up the moments when the whole band jumps on a set of quick hits. The solo from Stevens is beautiful: ragged and spare, finding the right notes, not the most notes.
For much of Walk Against Wind, the band you may think of is the great quartet co-lead by (and recently, briefly revived by) Joe Lovano and John Scofield. May Han Oh’s group rarely “swings” in the “walking bass line” sense but always finds an elastic groove that is all the more propulsive for the lack of crowding in the arrangements. “Ikan Bilis” becomes absolutely feverish during Wendel’s solo, largely because no one overplays. “Western” uses a unison melody between guitar and saxophone to set up a complex interplay during which the whole band is improvising with delight. For all the lines that intermingle, the harmony is kept so simple that the feeling is one of ease.
The quieter tunes leave room for really appreciating the leader’s tone on acoustic bass. “Deepsea Dancers” features a melody built in a sequence of notes, mostly struck twice each, begun on bass, then adding saxophone and guitar. The sequence repeats as each soloist takes a turn, the melody continuing in the foreground. Brown is restrained, and it becomes a delicate chamber piece.
On a couple of tracks, the quartet brings in an extra color or two. “Mantis” uses Mini Park playing percussion from the Korean tradition, adorning a slow tune that creates lovely texture and tension as May Han Oh double-times the bass line and kids Wendel’s solo into gear. On three tracks, pianist Fabian Almazan joins, including “Midnight”, a seductive blues number with a slightly Spanish tinge that builds into the kind of hip, off-kilter fusion we have heard recently from Chris Potter’s Underground band. Almazan complements beautifully on electric piano as May Han Oh plays electric bass wisely: funk repetitions and double stop coloring done right. Almazan is featured more prominently on “Firedancer”, with his left hand in unison with an acoustic bass melody and his right hand punching accents along with Wendel.
This is another tune, like “Dancers”, where the space left in the middle of the band is its best feature. Han May Oh, as a composer and arranger, clearly understands the value of silence and contrast. Perhaps the most memorable tune on Walk Against Wind is “Speech Impediment”, which begins with a quiet guitar/tenor melody that rides over the electric bass playing a figure almost from stride piano: one low note, alternating with a chord played up higher on the bass guitar. It is hypnotic and spare, but it soon gives way to a new, but related, figure for voice, tenor, and electric bass. This figure ingeniously speeds up and slows down again, accelerating and decelerating in turn, each time leaving more and less space in the composition. Guitar and drums histrionics follow, but both are brief, contained, and bring us back to the quiet opening figure. Space, as ever in music, is the place.
A few notes on the band. Ben Wendel is the reed player from the terrific band Kneebody, friends from the Eastman School who have been making great music for over a decade. Stevens has been recording and playing with top new voices for ten years as well, adding a fresh guitar voice to music by Christian Scott, Ben Williams, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Drummer Justin Brown is another young phenom, featured with Ambrose Akinmusire, Terence Blanchard, and too many other to list. Collectively with Han May Oh, they are a portrait of the current jazz generation: spanning nationalities, skin colors, experiences, and gender. Linda Han May Oh is, of course, a woman. She does not sing. Nothing in the marketing around her music tries to glamorize her. She is now a top-rank leader, composer, and jazz instrumentalist who plays neither toward nor against whatever stereotypes we may have about what a a woman in this music is “supposed to” sound like. Han May Oh simply sounds great: compelling and emotional, profound and inspiring and fresh. Hallelujah.