The title of Linda Oh’s debut CD, Entry, describes not only her emergence as a leader, but her arrival amongst the ranks of bassists who step out of the sidelines into the spotlight with a strong, cohesive vision. Alongside Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and drummer Obed Calvaire, Oh offers a compelling three-way conversation in which she serves as both equal voice and steely anchor.
“So many musicians want to do everything with their first album,” Oh says. “Especially bass players who play upright and electric — Here’s me doing a funk tune, here’s me doing a swing tune…I wanted to steer completely clear of that and have something kind of raw as well as challenging. Basically, I knew I wanted to do something different.”
Though she achieves that goal musically throughout Entry, Oh’s backstory alone ensures her uniqueness, even on the globally-oriented New York scene. Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and raised in Western Australia, she arrived in NYC three years ago having followed a circuitous route, culturally and musically.
Starting with classical piano lessons at age four, Oh’s musical dabblings progressed through various woodwind instruments throughout her school years before settling on the bassoon during high school. But at the same time, an uncle gave her an electric bass, which she played by day in her school jazz band at night, emulating Flea on Red Hot Chili Peppers covers by night.
Oh’s musical tastes had been forged through the influence of her older sister, who introduced her to “everything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Faith No More to Fela Kuti to Jaco Pastorius.” That influence persists on Entry via the trio’s hushed, tender version of the Chili Pepper’ early-90s B-side, “Soul to Squeeze”, which closes the album.
Having split her attentions between bassoon and bass throughout high school, the time came to make a choice when Oh decided to further her studies. She settled on the bass and in 2002 was accepted into the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where she began playing the upright bass for the first time.
“Being brought up in Australia, especially in such an isolated, pretty town as Perth, there were some very amazing, incredibly underrated musicians,” Oh says. “And because Australia is so small, I find it to be brutally honest. Here, I see a lot of people getting by because they have the right publicist or the right look, but over there people are a bit more willing to say, ‘This sounds like crap.’ That was a huge influence on me because it made me really learn fast.”
When it came time to record her own debut as a leader, Oh decided to assemble a stripped-down trio for a darker, moodier sound. “The dark blue color that I chose for the album cover reflects what I felt the colors of the tunes were,” she says. “It’s kind of strange, but I was looking for something a bit more honest. I wanted it to have a darker sound, so I had to constantly tell Ambrose to aim lower than what he would usually aim for.”
Oh chose two of New York’s most innovative talents for her trio, both fellow Manhattan School grads. Akinmusire has followed his victory in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition by playing with legends like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Calvaire lists Wynton Marsalis, Danilo Perez, Stefon Harris, and a two-year stint with Steve Turre on his résumé.
The three make for a formidable unit, maintaining a taut electricity while volleying ideas between them at the speed of inspiration. “I wanted the melodies and the harmonies to be simple and direct to create that raw sound,” Oh says. “Everything else — the rhythms, the ideas — could go wherever they wanted to. Basically, I was looking to put together my own tunes in the way that I wanted to, while giving the other guys the freedom to really characterize them.”
That combination of edge and electricity is present right out of the gate, in the tense pulse of “Morning Sunset”, met initially with smears and chirps from Akinmusire’s horn before building in momentum, with that throbbing heartbeat maintained throughout, traded among the instrumentalists.
It’s also present in the nervous energy of Oh’s opening bass lines on “Fourth Limb”, accompanied by Calvaire’s equally caffeinated chattering percussion, soothed by the entrance of a calmingly soulful trumpet melody.
Despite Oh’s focus on dark colors and raw sounds, there is no shortage of beauty on the album, whether in the form of Akinmusire’s chorus-like fanfare at the outset of “Numero Uno” or the bop-funk head of “Gunners”, which hides a punk snarl inside.
It’s not quite accurate to call this a three-sided dialogue, however — by devising clever tunes with built-in space for constant reinvention, Oh offers a suite of tunes that reward the listener who digs into the spaces that the trio carves out. In that sense, it’s a cooperative effort that works via four minds converging.