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By John Frederick Moore
Linda May Han Oh explores fragility, mortality, resilience and hope while expanding her sound.
Many people used the extra time in lockdown to reassess their values and ponder life’s deeper meanings. For Linda May Han Oh, the immensely creative bassist and composer, those considerations resulted in The Glass Hours (Biophilia), her sixth recording as a leader.
Oh started writing most of the album before COVID-19 turned the world upside down. Then, in the early days of the pandemic, she learned she was pregnant with her first child. “It really did shift a lot of things,” for her and pianist husband Fabian Almazan she says on a video call from her New York apartment, fresh off a series of performances in Ireland. “It made us reevaluate how we use our time. It reshaped a lot of these songs.”
Oh cites the sprightly tune “Hatchling” as a composition that took on a different context. Always intended to be a piece celebrating new life, it underwent a change in tone after the birth of her son. “Some of the music [became] a bit more hopeful in some ways,” she says. “A lot of things happened throughout the pandemic — the resilience and the strength and grit to get through it and to persevere. All of that helped inform what I chose to do compositionally.”
Not that Oh shied away from darker themes, particularly through the lyrics she wrote for “Jus Ad Bellum,” which questions the concept of a just war (“Are we hungry enough to eat our own?”), and “Antiquity,” which she describes as a dystopian piece that doubles as a call for urgency. And while Oh’s compositions have always been marked by their intricate details, she expands her palette even further on this record. “I wanted this quintet to sound a lot fuller than five people,” she says.
Some of that fullness comes from the fact that this is the first time Oh has featured vocals extensively on an album, courtesy of Sara Serpa’s graceful yet quietly intense contributions, whether through wordless vocalizing or interpreting Oh’s lyrics. (Oh occasionally contributes her own vocals to harmonize with Serpa’s.) “I’ve likened her voice to a beautiful, rich, full-bodied red wine,” Oh says. “There’s nothing particularly over the top or flashy. It’s this understated beauty, which was perfect for what I needed.”
Oh’s strategy in writing her bass parts allows her to cover multiple elements: playing off drummer Obed Calvaire’s stuttering patterns, then switching gears to reference phrases from Serpa’s melodies and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s solo on “Circles,” for example. “Part of that is composed and part of that is improvised,” she explains. “As a composer, I think it’s important for everyone to know each part composed for each musician. That way, when you’re improvising, you can really get into [the idea that] I can hold down my part, but I can hop on to something else if it calls for it.”
Of course, it takes a lineup of stellar musicians to execute Oh’s vision. While she’s worked with Almazan and Calvaire before, this marks the first time the bassist has collaborated with Turner. And the music itself requires a great deal of attention to detail to convey the philosophical queries behind Oh’s intentions.
“A lot of this has to do with the questions that baffle me,” she says. “How human beings spend their time in terms of violence, how they vote and what they choose to do day-to-day. Sometimes it’s quite confusing, and in order for me to process a lot of the paradoxes within which we live, music is my outlet to do so. In many ways, there are no quick fixes. We can vote, we can work within our communities to better them. But we have to figure out how to deal with them and move forward. Music and art are great ways to get some of those ideas out.”
Featured photo by John Frederick Moore.