Self-Portrait in Jazz: On the evolving Linda May Han Oh


There’s a lifetime of music contained in Linda May Han Oh’s Aventurine. No, that’s not a commentary on the album’s length; at 74 minutes, the program is generous and immersive, abiding discursions without ever feeling unfocused. There’s nothing on it that isn’t necessary to the big picture. Rather, it is a reflection of how Oh has quite literally been working toward this album her whole life. The material includes a few curated selections that sound like they’ve been seeded into her genetic code, revealing the lineage in which Oh situates herself: Chinese folk music to reflect her cultural upbringing, recalibrated jazz standards to ratify her chosen tradition. These songs are surrounded by original compositions, some of which are relatively new but several of which Oh has been playing, adjusting, and refining for over a decade, plumbing their depths and mastering their contours. Thus, Aventurine is an album about roots but also evolution; it adds up to a thesis statement, a synthesis of where Oh comes from and how it’s made her who she is. It is– to tweak a Bill Evans expression– a self-portrait in jazz.

If you don’t know Oh, now is a boon season for making her acquaintance. She plays upright bass with her husband, the pianist Fabian Almazon, on his new This Land Abounds with Life— another deep-dive into upbringing, culture, and identity, specifically his Cuban heritage. It’s an auspicious platform for Oh’s skill as an instrumentalist; listen to her fearless wayfinding on “The Everglades” for just one example of her style– nimble, tactile, molasses-thick. But it’s on Aventurine that you can witness her depth and imagination as a composer and a conceptual thinker. She recorded it with the dauntless ensemble of Greg Ward on saxophone, Chess Smith on drums, and Matt Mitchell on piano. Jazz improvisation provides its engine, but an air of classical refinement shimmers around the edges; both a string quartet and the Australian vocal group Invenio are featured throughout, the latter adding worldless evanescence not unlike the cloud of witnesses on Brad Mehldau’s Finding Gabriel.

Aventurine gets its name from a green-hued quartz, variously described as opaque and translucent. It’s fitting imagery for a sparkling suite of songs that feels both accessible and coy; emotionally direct but stylistically unclassifiable, constantly reshaping itself in real time. Certainly Oh and her band don’t want for swing, and some of the record’s most persuasive moments come when they cut through the air of gentility with a brash, low-end rumble; in “Lilac Chaser,” the string section sounds like they’re soundtracking a summer garden party, right up until Oh and her rambunctious rhythm team start kicking up dirt, dissolving the song’s elegant veneer into a combustible groove. Other songs are just as kinetic, but unconventionally so: “Kirigami,” named for a particular strain of the origami tradition, folds ever inward, until all that’s left is a delicate solo from Oh; then it unfurls itself again, blossoming back out into orchestral opulence. Like the paper artistry that gives it its name, the song embodies precise workmanship and careful attention.

A few selections from the jazz canon reveal a composer who cherishes her roots, mostly insofar as they give her the right bearings for forward motion. Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” reimagines the frenetic energy of bebop through knotty bass, anxious strings, and a whiplash dialogue between piano and sax. An album-ending take on Evans’ “Time Remembered” translates the song’s brazen romance into an extended showcase for the string section. There’s also the Chinese folk song “Song Yue Rao,” which uses a simple melodic framework as scaffolding for skittering improvisation; its presence here is one of the most striking examples of Oh’s overlapping allegiances and ideologies, her family origins intersecting with her discipleship in jazz. The original compositions are just as revealing. In the glistening “Ebony,” stuttering rhythms build tension, then erupt into rapturous dance. “The Sirens are Wailing” is part tone poem, part historic epic, winding through ghostly atonalities and ravishing melodies with clear emotional logic and narrative sense. In “Rest Your Weary Head”– a two-parter that Oh wrote for her nieces– the string section creates a murky undertow, and vibraphones sound like depth charges; the piece builds from a lullaby into a knobbly, resilient groove. And in the cosmic swirl of “Aventurine,” the strings, piano, and voices enter one at a time, each registering something like awe and wonder. It sounds like real-time self-discovery; like nobody but Linda May Han Oh.

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