The inspirations for Linda May Han Oh’s all-original set range from the paintings of Mark Rothko to the romantic tale of a man overcoming a stammer. These were just two elements in an engrossing set of carefully constructed, shape-shifting narratives from the sought-after New York-based bassist, here leading her own sax-and-rhythm quartet.
The performance began with Oh firmly establishing the elliptic, two-note motif of “Blue Over Gold” in the middle range of her double bass. The vibrant tone, close control and confident attack immediately established why she is such an in-demand performer — recent credits include extensive touring with Pat Metheny. The floaty cymbals, harmonic shifts and balance between tension and release confirmed her compositional grip.
As the piece unfolded, that tricky motif was harmonised by alto sax, the pulse quickened and a slow-burning intro morphed into a subsidiary theme. The composition has been in Oh’s repertoire since it was recorded in 2013, but the next tune, “Circles”, was recently composed. Here, bleak harmonies and an ambiguous pulse conjured a sense of impending doom. But sprightly trades between piano and sax soon lifted the clouds and the coda faded over warm, funky beats.
The rest of the set featured compositions from two recent albums. The gentle “Deep Sea Dancers” had a playful theme, the complex “Speech Impediment” a strong narrative drive and “Lilac Chaser” a contrast between the pensive and the irate. Here, Oh sang wordlessly a melody originally played by a quartet of strings. And on “Perpluzzle”, she supported her demanding vocal lines with a switch to bass guitar.
Oh’s mood-switching compositions integrate piano, bass and sax and have clear rhythmic and harmonic foundations. But this was no theme-and-variations set. Melodic fragments changed shape and reappeared, call-and-response sequences launched intricate improvisations and, at times, the distinction between the ad hoc and pre-composed became blurred.
This made for an intense and closely argued set as the soloists extemporised fresh moves over preset paths. Pianist Fabian Almazan’s fractured discords, mournful harmonies and urgent sense of pulse fired up the house from the outset. Elsewhere, lush chords delivered romance and fluid lines were supported by sparse, Monkish chords. Alto saxophonist Greg Ward moved from deliberate hesitancy to crisply articulated lines with an acute sense of form. And drummer Ziv Ravitz delivered a mid-set highlight of snare-drum paradiddles, cymbal splashes and melodic bass drum beats.
“Mantis”, a slow-burning complexity, ended the set with an out-of-nowhere stop. The encore, “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song”, written by pianist Almazan, was a helter-skelter mix of modal jazz with folk-tune dance.
Linda May Han Oh will appear with the Vijay Iyer Trio at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 14 at the 2021 EFG London Jazz Festival
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