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The art of mime, with its embrace of silence and pure physical expression, may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for a jazz musician. But in “Walking Against the Wind,” one of Marcel Marceau’s best-loved pieces, bassist/composer Linda May Han Oh found a stunning metaphor for the life of an artist. Linda has chosen to release this album under the name, “Linda May Han Oh” as “May Han” is her birth name and the name “Linda” was given to her at three years of age upon moving to Australia in order to assimilate. Marceau’s graceful but frustrated motion, which also inspired Michael Jackson’s iconic moonwalk, found the legendary mime fighting against invisible but pervasive forces while also embracing the beauty and pleasure to be found in taking the paths in life that offer greater challenges – but also richer rewards.
On her fourth album, Walk Against Wind, Oh explores both the challenges and the rich rewards of an artist’s journey. “Walk Against Wind is about the paths that we choose,” Oh explains. “Sometimes they end up being the harder paths, but in the long run they prove more fruitful.”
The album, released April 14 2017 by Biophilia Records, is the spiritual successor to Oh’s acclaimed 2013 release Sun Pictures, with returning saxophonist Ben Wendel (Kneebody, Snoop Dogg) joined by guitarist Matthew Stevens (Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding) and drummer Justin Brown (Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton). In addition, keyboardist Fabian Almazan (Terence Blanchard) and Korean traditional musician Minji Park appear as special guests with the quartet, which has been workshopping Oh’s compositions at a variety of New York hotspots including the 55 Bar, The Jazz Gallery and Minton’s Harlem.
Beyond the inspiration to be found in Marceau’s preternaturally elegant and moving work, Oh looks up to the mime for the way he used his art for the benefit of humanity, joining the French Resistance and saving Jewish children from the concentration camps during World War II. “In my experience teaching, I always think it’s important to give the students a bigger picture perspective,” says Oh, who teaches in Manhattan School of Music’s precollege program as well as various camps and workshops including the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music and Stanford Jazz Workshop.
“It doesn’t mean that you have to do volunteer work 24 hours a day or donate all your money to charity; it’s just about thinking bigger picture about what you can give back to the community with your music. It’s definitely appropriate for these times given the uncertainty of what’s to come and the feelings of division, lack of unity and the climate of intolerance that’s arisen in the last few years.”
Empathy and building bridges are key to the music on Walk Against Wind. “Mantis,” which is based on a traditional Korean rhythm called “ochae chilgut,” was inspired by an experience the Malaysian-born, Australian-raised, New York-based Oh had collaborating with an international group of musicians at the 2013 Gwang Ju World Music Festival in Korea. “Speech Impediment,” meanwhile, is a narrative piece that sonically relates the story of a man afflicted with a stutter who struggles to profess his feeling to the woman he loves. The piece was sparked in part by a talk given by Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington about her own battles with stuttering, which Oh saw as a powerful example of people’s tendencies to overlook the depth of someone’s character in favor of more superficial, surface-based judgments.
A core idea that carries through all of these pieces – whether sharing musical experiences with collaborators who don’t speak your language, finding ways to speak when words fail, or finding the profound emotions in a mute performer’s work – is that of non-verbal communication, a crucial element in jazz that Oh has discovered in deep and meaningful ways with this group of gifted musicians.
Walk Against Wind features Oh expanding her palette in numerous ways, from an increased use of electric bass to her use of wordless vocals (both of which harken back, in embryonic form, to her earliest days playing Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joan Jett songs in Australian cover bands). Both can be heard on the frenetic and rubbery “Perpluzzle,” whose Escher-esque twists and turns prove an engaging challenge for the quartet.
Stevens and Oh illustrate the trudging steps of “Walk Against Wind,” which spins a more determined, commanding variation from Marceau’s title to epitomize the tune’s ultimate soaring triumph against those unseen obstacles. The melody of “Firedancer” traces the dazzling steps of a Brazilian dancers and their whirling torches, which Oh witnessed through the images of sociologist and filmmaker Sabrina McCormick, for whom she’s contributed soundtrack music. Film also became the source for “Western,” which was born from Oh’s experience in the Sundance Institute’s Composers Lab, held at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, and traces its roots to spaghetti western films – both their grit and ruggedness but also their near-operatic absurdity.
A bedtime hymn for the 18-and-over set, entrancing opener “Lucid Lullaby” combines nostalgia and catharsis to sing more mature listeners to sleep, while “Ikan Bilis” – the Malay word for “anchovy” – is Oh’s wistful reminiscence for her mother’s cooking, particularly the cherished Malaysian anchovies-and-rice dish Nasi Lemak. The lovely, recursive ballad “Mother Reason” offers another look back, this time reflecting on the way that a mother always knows when something’s wrong with their child, circling again and again from crisis to reassurance.
The evocatively-titled “Deepsea Dancers” was inspired by personal loss, weaving around an insistent melody with the determination and resolve that comes from grief, gilded by the beauty of a life touched and impacted by those we’ve lost. The crepuscular “Midnight” strikes a dark-tinged but ultimately hopeful note redolent of the witching hour.
The compelling, memorable compositions and thrilling improvisations on Walk Against Wind exemplify why Linda May Han Oh has become one of the most in-demand bassists of her generation. Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and raised in Western Australia, Oh arrived in New York with a love of jazz, early training in classical bassoon, and an adolescence spent playing electric bass in Aussie rock bands. She recently joined guitar giant Pat Metheny’s newest quartet and remains a key member of trumpet great Dave Douglas’ quintet as well as the Sound Prints band Douglas co-founded with saxophonist Joe Lovano. In addition, Oh has worked with pianists Fabian Almazan, and Kenny Barron, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Jaleel Shaw, and drummer E.J. Strickland.
Linda May Han Oh: Bass
Ben Wendel: Saxophone
Matthew Stevens: Guitar
Justin Brown: Drums
Fabian Almazan: Piano (tracks 2, 6, 10), Keyboards
Minji Park: janggu & kkwaenggwari (track 8)
Walk Against Wind is available from Biophilia Records (via Bandcamp) as downloads or with or without physical artwork.
Enjoy the full album right here. For a deeper dive into Oh’s music, listen to our April 16 show with an interview and more of her music. Let us know what you think in the comments.