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Linda Oh: Connecting Points On A Musical Map

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 9, 2012 12:01 pm

In a good jazz rhythm section, the players function independently and as one. Their parts and accents crisscross and reinforce each other, interlocking like West African drummers. Beyond that, the bass is a band's ground floor. When it changes up, the earth shifts under all the players' feet. From moment to moment, Linda Oh's bass prowls or gallops, takes giant downward leaps, or stands its ground.

Linda Oh's album Initial Here features drummer Rudy Royston and the Cuban-born New York pianist Fabian Almazan. In Cuban music even more than jazz, piano has a highly percussive function. Almazan sounds like he's playing the proverbial 88 tuned bongos on the track "Something's Coming," a Leonard Bernstein tune from West Side Story.

Initial Here isn't all uptempo. Oh's 2009 debut, for trio with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, had a narrow sonic focus. This sequel is more expansive, reflecting her personal trek. Last year she visited China and Malaysia, meeting family and discovering roots. On the art song with strings "Thicker Than Water," Jen Shyu sings Oh's lyric in Mandarin and English.

Oh played in classical orchestras growing up, and she works a Stravinsky piano piece for kids into the ending of the Leonard Bernstein tune. A little Bach sneaks in when she picks up electric bass on the track "Little House."

Fabian Almazan's classical training may fall under his fingers too, even on electric piano. These cosmopolitans draw from all over — at college Oh researched applying North Indian rhythm cycles to jazz bass. Her tune "No.1 Hit" shows the state of the 21st century jazz groove, as she and drummer Rudy Royston dance around a tricky Latin syncopation. There's some funk in their beat, even a whiff of drum 'n' bass club music, but it still has a springy swing feel.

Linda Oh was raised way out in west Australia, in Perth, one of the earth's most remote cities. Growing up that far from everywhere can make the rest of the world look closer together once you're in it. From ancestral China through India, West Africa and Cuba, Bach's Saxony to Stravinsky's Paris to Bernstein's and Duke Ellington's New York, Linda Oh connects points on a musical map.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the young New York bassist Linda Oh's story is so colorful. Everyone mentions how she was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who then emigrated to Australia where she grew up. Now she lives and works with many bands in New York. Her second album is out and Kevin says her musical stories are also compelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Linda Oh on bass with Rudy Royston on drums. I like her earthy tone and how she keeps her line moving. In a good jazz rhythm section, the players function independently and as one. Their parts and accents crisscross and reinforce each other, interlocking like West African drummers. Beyond that, the bass is a band's ground floor.

When it changes up, the earth shifts under all the players' feet. Listen to Oh with saxophonist Dayna Stephens who's got some drummer's timing himself. From moment to moment, Oh's bass prowls or gallops, takes giant downward leaps, or stands its ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: That's from Linda Oh's album "Initial Here" where the third member of the rhythm section is a fellow internationalist, Cuban-born New York pianist Fabian Almazan. In Cuban music even more than jazz, piano has a highly percussive function. Almazan can sound like he's playing the proverbial 88 tuned bongos. This is from Leonard Bernstein's "Something's Coming," from West Side Story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SOMETHING'S COMING")

WHITEHEAD: Linda Oh's "Initial Here" isn't all up-tempo. Her 2009 debut, her trio with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, had a narrow sonic focus. This sequel is more expansive, reflecting her personal trek. Last year she visited China and Malaysia, meeting family and discovering roots. On the art song with strings "Thicker Than Water," Jen Shyu sings Oh's lyric in Mandarin and English.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THICKER THAN WATER")

JEN SHYU: (Singing in Mandarin) (Singing in English) Don't cry, little sister. Dance away your troubles. You'll come to understand these thoughts and lonely aspirations.

WHITEHEAD: Jen Shyu on vocals with Linda Oh on bass and bassoon. Oh played in classical orchestras growing up, and she works a Stravinsky piano piece for kids into the ending of that Leonard Bernstein tune. A little Bach sneaks in when she picks up electric bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LITTLE HOUSE")

WHITEHEAD: Fabian Almazan's classical training may fall under his fingers too, even on electric piano. These cosmopolitans draw from all over - at college Oh researched applying North Indian rhythm cycles to jazz bass. Her tune "No. 1 Hit" shows the state of the 21st century jazz groove, as she and drummer Rudy Royston dance around a tricky Latin syncopation.

There's some funk in their beat, even a whiff of drum and bass club music, but it still has a springy swing feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "NO. 1 HIT")

WHITEHEAD: Linda Oh was raised way out in West Australia, in Perth, one of the Earth's most remote cities. Growing up that far from everywhere can make the rest of the world look closer together once you're in it. From ancestral China through India, West Africa and Cuba, Bach's Saxony to Stravinsky's Paris to Bernstein's and Duke Ellington's New York, Linda Oh connects points on a musical map.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "Initial Here," the new album by bassist Linda Oh on the Greenleaf music label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.