Bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh has been thinking a lot about perception, choices, and life cycles. In a recent phone conversation, we spoke with Oh about her reading and research surrounding some of life’s big paradoxes, and how she has been using these thoughts to fuel a new set of compositions. The work–titled The Glass Hours–will have its Chamber Music America premiere at The Jazz Gallery this weekend, featuring vocalist Sara Serpa, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Obed Calvaire, and Linda Oh on bass.
Oh’s most recent release, Aventurine (Biophilia 2019) was an ambitious double quartet with string quartet and choir. Colorful and dense, flowing and crisp, Aventurine is a lush and cohesive work. Oh is a member of the We Have Voice Collective, and was succinctly described as a “musician with intention” by Music and Literature. She has been a longtime friend of The Jazz Gallery, has performed with Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Kenny Barron, Geri Allen, Fabian Almazan, and Terri Lyne Carrington, and is currently the bassist with guitarist Pat Metheny. Read on for our full conversation below.
The Jazz Gallery: Nice to catch up with you. Are you in New York at the moment?
Linda May Han Oh: I’m actually up in Tarrytown with Fabian Almazan. We’re both doing work at the Rockefeller Kykuit Estate, where they have a space for artists to work. We’ve spent the last couple of days here.
TJG: Sounds like a lovely way to get out of the city
LO: Exactly. I’ve been working on some of this new music.
TJG: Tell me a little more about the Chamber Music America premiere you’re working on.
LO: The lineup is Sara Serpa on vocals, Melissa Aldana on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano and electronics, and Obed Calvaire on drums. They’re all great musicians, and I’m excited to work with them on this new music. Most of these new pieces are based on abstract themes of life and time, linear versus cyclical, looking at the push-and-pull in our perceptions between old and new, and how it all plays out in the choices we make. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been exploring these concepts through different compositions and forms.
TJG: Before we get into the specifics, how did you decide to do a project along the lines of space, time, life cycles?
LO: I’ve thought a lot about these themes, and my current work is based on a few different related things I’ve been checking out. Some of the music touches on stories and myths, partially derived from Joseph Campbell and his writing, including “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I’ve been looking at how myths can parallel the trials and tribulations we have in our own lives, our expectations, our goals, et cetera. Some of these thoughts are based on stuff I’ve been reading, some are based on more general questions regarding the value of life. I’ve been reading and doing online coursework via Coursera relating to International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: I’m working on educating myself in my own values, exploring these questions and paradoxes.
I feel incredibly privileged that I don’t have to fight in a war at the moment, to go into battle. How interesting it is that we value life and the lives of others, and yet, there are paradoxes within the realm of international humanitarian law: We see guidelines in place to limit the amount of hurt and death that is happening, and yet, war is still war. It’s amazing how certain questions, like the ones in the back of my mind regarding the value of life, can feel so separate when we’re not living within the realm of war. It’s paradoxical that we value our lives and the lives of those around us, and yet you look at the military, the state of health care, gun reform… There are separations that make you question things.
TJG: There’s a creative moment where you’re reading, studying, journaling, talking with friends, and then suddenly, you say “This has to be music, I want it to be music.” Could you tell me about the next steps you took?
LO: Yeah. Some of it has played out in terms of form, shapes that we play over. Linear, cyclical. In terms of how they parallel the myths, trials, and tribulations, some of these ideas echo through my melodies, through the underlying structures. You’ll find that in some pieces, there’s a definite push-and-pull from one end of the spectrum to the other, where it’s almost like some members of the band are playing tug-of-war with each other.
TJG: Have you talked to your collaborators and bandmates about what’s going on behind the music for you?
LO: In some ways, yes. I’ve explained some of the titles and names. One of the songs is called “Jus ad bellum,” which has to do with the principles behind deciding to go to war. The piece has had different meanings, along the lines of the different reflections I’ve spoken about in terms of International Humanitarian Law, but I’ve also been linking it with the Joseph Campbell stories of the hero’s quest. I have explained some of that stuff to my bandmates.
Jus ad bellum starts as a segue from a different piece, with saxophone and bass rubato melody. It flows into this resounding cry of angst, all still rubato, which repeats for a while with improvisation over that, finishing with the melody, then an introduction into this beat that’s almost a call to arms. There are several melodies going on: It’s a call to arms with a conflicting tug of war at the same time, and a vocal melody on top. Sara Serpa has this beautiful, angelic, clear voice that resounds over the whole thing. It’s kind of a push-and-pull until it disintegrates into the angelic melody, then finishes.
TJG: Sounds amazing. Have you had rehearsals yet? How are you working through the music?
LO: I’ve gotten together with Melissa and Sara, and have sent all the music out. We’re rehearsing tomorrow to work through the material and hash everything out.
TJG: Are there lyrics or text?
LO: For the most part, they’re wordless vocals. I’m currently working on text, but we’ll see if it comes to fruition.
TJG: How are you feeling about the band you’ve put together for this project? Have you worked in this exact configuration before?
LO: I haven’t worked with this exact group before, but I have done some work with Sara Serpa. We’ve played in different contexts. She’s sung in Fabian’s projects before, and Fabian and I play a lot together. I’ve played a lot with Melissa too. Obed has played some with my band, and was actually on my first record ever, back in 2009, a trio record with Ambrose Akinmusire. Obed and Fabian have done some playing together, and they both grew up in Miami.
TJG: So this project is a real cross-section of your different communities. Do you envision an album? A tour? More work with this group? Could this be the start of something?
LO: Yeah. I wanted to have that cross-section, I think everyone is quite interesting in their own way. I’d like to do an album, and we’ll see how these shows go. We have another show at The Side Door in Connecticut December 7th. I hope we can record this project and make it a bigger thing in the future.
TJG: I know you’ve always got a lot going on, and you released an album–Aventurine–last May. How do you view this CMA project and this band in the bigger constellation of your musical life right now?
LO: This project is definitely different from the last project I wrote. Aventurine was written for double quartet, including string quartet and choir. I’m still employing that writing for voice, for Sara. And I’ve still been performing the Aventurine project a bit too. But in the newest music, there’s a bit more of a thread behind it, especially in relation to my album before Aventurine, which didn’t explore the same kinds of themes like I am here. It’s a little different.
I’ve tried to approach the themes and the music in different ways too. I have certain methods of composing where I give myself some little limits here and there, it’s like a game. Creating a framework where we can play over it, limiting myself with certain shapes. But I didn’t use those methods so much here. In this music, there’s still a bit of that, but it’s a lot more about exploring emotions and spaces.
Linda May Han Oh presents The Glass Hours at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, November 29, and Saturday, November 30, 2019. The group features Ms. Oh on bass, Sara Serpa on vocals, Melissa Aldana on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano & electronics, and Obed Calvaire on drums. The project is made possible by the Chamber Music America 2018 New Jazz Works program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.