I've had "Lucid Lullaby" stuck in my head for weeks. It took an equal amount of time for the humor of the literal nature of the song title to wash over me, but that phrase singing forth from Linda May Han Oh's bass, haunting me perpetually, is the perfect little melody. Oh as a composer has always been adept at writing perfect little melodies throughout her body of work. This is no more clear than in her latest release, Walk Against Wind, out Friday on Biophilia Records.
Walk Against Wind is in many ways the spiritual successor of Oh's excellent 2013 album, Sun Pictures, an album I will still rock with just as much fervency as when it released four years ago, to the point that it may be one of the finest jazz albums of the past decade. That album had Oh teamed up with saxophonist Ben Wendel, who remains in her quartet in this excursion, but this time around Matthew Stevens is on guitar and Justin Brown is on drums. This quartet can go just as hard, if not harder, with the same kind of melodicism and brilliance that would would expect from a group of heavy hitters like these. However, this sound fills out even more with occasional additions from pianist Fabian Almazan and Minji Park playing assorted Korean instruments here and there. Stevens' guitar provides little angular moments of discord, giving a bit of an edge in spaces. Justin Brown takes his moments here and there to assassinate the drums as one would expect Justin Brown to do, for he is a murderer. With this configuration, these things all of this would be expected, actually, but it's through Oh's careful arrangements and her even more aware compositions, with melodies that have the complexity of modern jazz but the sensibility of great memorable music (you can actually sing most of these songs; hey jazz musicians, isn't that a bizarre notion?), that keeps a certain restraint throughout the album.
In Walk Against Wind, Oh has captured lightning in a bottle. The aforementioned opening song is haunting and hypnotizing and fades away into the ether. "Speech Impediment", which feels like it could be autobiographical, captures voice as much as it captures emotion. It's as if a blues could go jogging. "Walking Against Wind" takes such dynamic but logical shifts in directions, it's almost kindred spirits with Radiohead's "Paranoid Android". "Ikan Bilis" is just as much a comfort to sing along to as the rest of these songs, even with its rises and falls through hills and valleys, there's still something there as an anchor. "Mantis" is fantastic, but the ramp up as this band swirls together, is everything to write home about.
This is a listenable album. It's not just some art piece made to be difficult; it's not abhorring the audience. Every time Linda Oh makes an album, it makes me thing would her compositions be this great if she didn't have that anchoring mentality that bassists must have. Linda May Han Oh is a planetary force and these compositions, so brilliantly crafted, are her gravitational waves. It would stand to reason that her band members would be able to maintain such perfect orbits, particularly when they're all such top notch pilots (or perfectly sculpted moons, however you want to end this metaphor). As a writer, Oh is the kind of musician that is the best of the genre of jazz. These are real songs with arcs and vibes and soaring sensibilities that relay the honesty of everything she wants to convey. As a performer, she's even stronger, her bass a resounding, unwavering voice.
Linda May Han Oh is among the best of this music. It's hard to think that an album as great as Sun Pictures could be lived up to, but having doubts about Linda Oh is just foolhardy. She's just too talented to be held back, even by her own past accomplishments. She's a musician, a person, so outstanding that even her name had to be larger, expanded, filled out, more expressive of all she is and all her identity. An album is a statement about where an artist is at a given moment, a collection of works in a period giving an indication of mindset and development. If Walk Against Wind is any indication, it's still exciting to see the places Linda May Han Oh will go next, but I could certainly hang around listening to this statement in time for quite a while until she feels like saying something again. Her statements are just that substantial.
Walk Against Wind, the latest album from bassist/composer Linda May Han Oh, is out April 14th on Greenleaf Music.
Linda Oh - acoustic bass
Ben Wendel - tenor saxophone
Matthew Stevens - guitar
Justin Brown - drums
Fabian Almazan - piano (tracks 2, 6, 10)
Minji Park - janggu & kkwaenggwari (track 8)
Recorded at Brooklyn Recording
on March 1 & 2, 2016
Engineered by Tyler MacDiarmid & Andy Taub
Mixed and Mastered by David Darlington at Bass Hit Studios
Nextbop editor Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current. You should follow him on Twitter.
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