Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oh, Linda Oh!

The Harlem in the Himalayas nights at the Rubin Museum of Art are amongst the most innovative and enjoyable events in New York. They take place at irregular intervals on Friday evenings every couple of months, which is probably good. It would be nice to have them more often, but this way the quality and freshness of the music can be guaranteed.

On the first Friday of this month I headed there to catch a rising star in the jazz world, Linda Oh, whom I had read about but whose music I had never heard. The ground floor café space—spacious yet intimate—was slowly filling up and an extra cash bar had been set up in a corner, but many of the patrons were still browsing in the museum shop that, faithful to the museum’s theme, displays a comprehensive collection of works focusing on Buddhism and other Eastern cultural topics.

As always, the concert took place in the basement concert hall, which is not set up as your usual concert hall. While the stage is rather large and elevated like in a traditional theater, the chairs are arranged so as to allow for small tables in between for the audience to place their drinks on. When the doors opened just before 7 pm, a fair proportion of the people in the bookstore and lounge moved down to hear the concert. The audience was mixed in age, gender and ethnicity, which to me is always a great plus in itself.

Linda Oh presented her trio consisting of Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Tommy Crane on drums and the leader herself on the bass. She began the concert with a bass solo turning into a vamp that the two other musicians joined in. The band settled into an easy slow groove that immediately grabbed the audience with it. We would hear 1.5 hours of contemporary jazz played on purely acoustic instruments, with interesting harmonies and complex, ever-changing rhythms. Yet, this was music that people could easily relate to.

The Malaysian-born, Australian-raised composer-musician writes music that is both innovative and beautiful, often an elusive goal for contemporary musicians. Linda Oh hasn’t followed the usual path through Berklee College of Music that so many young jazz musicians now emerge from. Instead, she studied at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts. She then moved to the US and completed a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches the bass. Her Aussie accent, albeit moderated by the stay in New York, was still audible as the sympathetic young lady introduced the music in between pieces.

Apart from being a technically and musically skilled bassist, what attracted me was her composing. Her tunes have beautiful melodies that appear deceivingly simple. The trio, with no instrument playing the chords, might appear somewhat limiting harmonically. Then again, the set chord changes played by a piano or guitar can also in themselves become a restriction for the musicians to venture outside. Consequently, many modern jazz players—from Gerry Mulligan and Ornette Coleman to Dave Holland and Joshua Redman—have chosen the more open format. In this case, the Linda Oh Trio was in many ways having the best of both worlds. While they created ample space for adventurousness, there was also structure and harmony in the music. The melodies were often played by the trumpet and the bass together or alternately, in unison or in harmonies. In addition, Linda Oh herself would frequently use double-stops on her bass to create chords. When she soloed, Akinmusire would add long notes or punctuations to back her up like a piano paper might do.

Tommy Crane whose long hair covered his facial expressions for much of the evening proved himself a creative drummer in tune with the other musicians. He used the full arsenal of his small drum kit in a sensitive, albeit at times a bit busy way, alternating between the sticks and the brushes. From my vantage point sitting at the front slightly behind him, I could observe his dexterity and I in particular admired his use of the bass drum to accentuate the meandering music. The rhythms would move between free-flowing rubatos, straight rides and taut hi-hat beats (à la Jack de Johnette), often within the confines of the same song.

Linda Oh’s pieces are tightly structured and written through, largely avoiding the traditional theme-solos-theme structure. It was a pleasure to observe the tiny cues—a slight nod or simple eye contact—that signaled the change of pace or mood or the entry of another theme to be played by the trumpet and the bass in between improvisational passages.

Ambrose Akinmusire played some of the most enjoyable and original solos of the evening. Much of the time, he played modestly, in low register, with a soft but broad tone reminiscent of a flugelhorn, only to burst into sparkling solos in a bright broad trumpet sound. His use of the horn’s possibilities by way of tone and nuances was startlingly original and outright fun.

Apart from supplying the great material for the concert and leading the trio with a solid hand, Linda Oh also proved to be a bassist to be taken seriously. She has a fluid technique and beautiful natural sound. She used the whole range of the instrument reaching for the low tones above her head, while her solos and melodies often made her bend over to push the strings on the upper reaches of the fretboard.

Much of the repertoire this evening came from Linda Oh’s first CD, Entry, which features her compositions for the trio (while Akinmusire plays the trumpet on the record, the drummer is different, Obed Calvaire), but the band did perform some new music as well. Her second CD, Initial Here, is scheduled to be released in May and features a different set up, this time with piano and saxophone, and on one son another original performer with Asian roots, Jen Shyu. And on the new album we’ll also hear Linda on the electric bass and bassoon, in addition to her big acoustic fiddle.

But this Friday evening we were treated to a varied set of acoustic trio pieces, such as the ‘Morning Sunset’, the rhythmically enticing ‘Fourth Limb’, the quietly beautiful ‘Patterns’, the complex ‘Gunners’, and the bopish uptempo crowd-pleaser ‘201’. When the concert was over and I left the hall, the party upstairs had picked up. The lounge was now full of people and a DJ was spinning records in one corner. I decided not to linger but stepped out into the rain on the 17th Street with a satisfied feeling about the state of music in the world.

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