In the fall of 2009, Linda Oh's debut recording, Entry, arrived in a single sleeve with typewritten notes and a drawing depicting a young woman holding her bass against the full moon — was Gotham in the distance? Could it be a long-overdue fusion of manga and jazz?
"It was a friend of a friend of mine who's a comic-book artist for Marvel," Oh says. "That was her rough sketch, and I just loved it. I wanted it to be ambiguous. Some of the background buildings are from Perth, Kuala Lumpur and New York."
Born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese descent, Oh spent her formative years in Australia. These days, she lives in Harlem.
"I was always a classical musician," Oh says. "I learned piano early, and I was very serious about classical bassoon in high school. Then I started hearing jazz musicians in Perth who inspired me. I dabbled in electric bass a bit and played in the school jazz band."
Linda Oh, bass
Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet
Tommy Crane, drums
Rock also factored into the equation: "I would play along to Led Zeppelin and Faith No More," Oh says. Add that to a healthy obsession with Flea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — especially the song "Soul to Squeeze," a B-side from Blood Sugar Sex Magik. (Oh plays a version of it on Entry.) And then there's the combination of bassist Dave Holland and North Indian classical music.
"I did an honors year at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Basically, I spent a year transcribing Dave Holland solos and writing a dissertation tying North Indian classical rhythms to his playing," Oh says. "He grew up in England, where there were a lot of immigrants from Northern India playing music, and he listened to a lot of it. More than anything, it was an exploration for me to learn about these things. It was great for me to apply these concepts rhythmically to my own playing."
The cover of the Linda Oh Trio's Entry.
In this WBGO studio session for The Checkout, Linda Oh's trio offers an uncommonly spare sound, but the performance is self-assured. You can hear the propulsion immediately in her opening notes to "Numero Uno."
Another Oh original, "201," puts a humorous spin on swing. It's in an unusual form that breaks occasionally into a cue to the more traditional blues feel. This is what happens when you write music at 2:01 a.m.
Finally, the Linda Oh Trio introduces "To Not Be Broken," new material that isn't on her debut recording. Oh says her inspiration comes from Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.
"He was a child soldier in Sierra Leone," Oh says. "It was a really moving story, and it really made me think about what it takes to break a human spirit. I learned, after I read the book and wrote the tune, that there was a degree of contrivancy behind his story, whether it was valid or not. Nevertheless, I wrote this tune about the human spirit and that it takes a lot to break it."
Recorded Oct. 7, 2009, at WBGO. Producer and host: Josh Jackson. Mix: Josh Webb.