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Linda Oh: Connecting Points On A Musical Map

Linda Oh
Vincent Soyez
courtesy of the artist
Linda Oh

In a good jazz rhythm section, the players function independently and as one. Their parts and accents crisscross and reinforce each other, interlocking like West African drummers. Beyond that, the bass is a band's ground floor. When it changes up, the earth shifts under all the players' feet. From moment to moment, Linda Oh's bass prowls or gallops, takes giant downward leaps, or stands its ground.

Linda Oh's album Initial Here features drummer Rudy Royston and the Cuban-born New York pianist Fabian Almazan. In Cuban music even more than jazz, piano has a highly percussive function. Almazan sounds like he's playing the proverbial 88 tuned bongos on the track "Something's Coming," a Leonard Bernstein tune from West Side Story.

Initial Here isn't all uptempo. Oh's 2009 debut, for trio with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, had a narrow sonic focus. This sequel is more expansive, reflecting her personal trek. Last year she visited China and Malaysia, meeting family and discovering roots. On the art song with strings "Thicker Than Water," Jen Shyu sings Oh's lyric in Mandarin and English.

Oh played in classical orchestras growing up, and she works a Stravinsky piano piece for kids into the ending of the Leonard Bernstein tune. A little Bach sneaks in when she picks up electric bass on the track "Little House."

Fabian Almazan's classical training may fall under his fingers too, even on electric piano. These cosmopolitans draw from all over — at college Oh researched applying North Indian rhythm cycles to jazz bass. Her tune "No.1 Hit" shows the state of the 21st century jazz groove, as she and drummer Rudy Royston dance around a tricky Latin syncopation. There's some funk in their beat, even a whiff of drum 'n' bass club music, but it still has a springy swing feel.

Linda Oh was raised way out in west Australia, in Perth, one of the earth's most remote cities. Growing up that far from everywhere can make the rest of the world look closer together once you're in it. From ancestral China through India, West Africa and Cuba, Bach's Saxony to Stravinsky's Paris to Bernstein's and Duke Ellington's New York, Linda Oh connects points on a musical map.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.