Mondays With Morgan: Linda May Han Oh (new album ‘The Glass Hours’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with Linda May Han Oh, whose mastery of acoustic and electric bass — as well as composition — has won her numerous honorifics and awards, including a GRAMMY in 2022 for an appearance on Terri Lyne Carrington’s New Standards Vol. 1.

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Oh’s new album, The Glass Hours, is out now on Biophilia Records. A purchase link can be found at the bottom of this article.

Linda May Han Oh holding electric bass
Linda May Han Oh. Photo credit Shervin Lainez

Given that the pandemic was a universal experience, it became something of a refrain for jazz musicians — numberless practitioners leaned on it in the press, and not without good reason. (Especially given the dispiriting economic realities of trying to hack it during this period.)

What makes bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh’s reaction to this global tragedy stand out? This well of emotion is immediately perceptible in the music — not just the one sheet. 

On her enveloping new album, The Glass Hours, isolation, loss and resilience permeate each note she plays — every melody, harmony and rhythm she orchestrates.

“From a young age, when I was learning music as a kid, I do remember music classes where we were encouraged to think about how we feel; how does making music make us feel?” Oh tells LondonJazz News. “I think about that when I’m writing; I think about that when I’m improvising and soloing.”

Featuring vocalist Sara Serpa, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and drummer Obed Calvaire, The Glass Hours is freighted with the struggles and joys of everything Oh experienced since her last leader album, 2019’s Aventurine.

In this interim, she’s been on fire creatively. She’s appeared on albums led by guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonists Jim Snidero and Paul Jones, saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Smith, trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Vijay Iyer, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

She also experienced a throttling lockdown — as far as national borders were concerned — and she and her husband, Almazan, gave birth to a baby boy [find link to Oh’s interview for LJN’s ‘Mothers in Jazz’ series at the bottom of this article]. “These last few years have made my music grow and develop in a way that I didn’t really know it would,” Oh says.

Read on for an in-depth interview with Oh about the road to The Glass Hours, her rapport with her accompanists and how the extremes of the last several years ignited her creativity.

LondonJazz News: Can you summarise what’s happened in your life and career since Aventurine? It seems like it’s been a wild ride.

Linda May Han Oh: Yeah, it has been a wild ride. When I started writing this music, it was before the pandemic, around 2018. When we first started playing the first incarnations of this music, it was at the Jazz Gallery [in New York City].

I was thinking of, basically, all the same topics — the idea of the fragility of time, particularly. It’s interesting how so much of what I was writing about still resonates with me today in a very strong way. 

Over the pandemic, it even more heightened the idea of the fragility of time and what we do with it, but I think everybody’s concept of time shifted at that point. 

I think everyone questioned what they were doing, and what was making them happy — thinking about what choices were available to them, if they had those choices. How they wanted to spend their time working, with their family, et cetera.

All of this music did change and evolve, considering that. Through that time — since 2018, 2019 — I was doing quite a lot of touring at that point, and then, a very abrupt stop in 2020. 

I was invited on tour with Pat Metheny in South America, and we had to make the decision whether or not to continue on from Argentina through to Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Cuba — where we still had other shows. And one by one, they all started falling like dominoes.

Fabian was on his way to the Hollywood Bowl when he got a call not to go to the airport, and to turn around. It was scary for everyone — a time of uncertainty.

At the same time, there was this pause, where it enabled Fabian and I — who weren’t supposed to see each other for months after touring — to actually be with each other. To reflect and [laughs] actually have dinner with each other, which was so rare at the time.

I was lucky to still be able to make music with Fabian — to do live recordings and live streams, thanks to incredibly resourceful musicians for Live in Our Living Rooms, which was a commission of [vocalist and composer] Sirintip, [saxophonist and woodwindist] Owen Broder and [fellow vocalist and composer] Thana Alexa. 

And [bassist] Anthony Tidd, with his livestream project, and other venues that were really on top of things; they provided opportunities and platforms for musicians, and I was really grateful for that.

LJN: I know having a child has been a monumental part of this time.

LMHO: Around that time, I got pregnant, and we decided to go back to our hometown of Perth, where there was really no Covid. They had shut down their borders as a state, and it wasn’t easy to get in. We were lucky to get in in time and to be with family, and spend that time there.

I was still teaching, and still trying to do live streams. I gave birth to a baby boy, Nilo, who is the centre of my world at the moment. It’s been a juggling act of motherhood, teaching, performing, and composing, but it’s been such an invigorating challenge.

Overall, it’s been a really fulfilling few years, and I just feel incredibly lucky. I think a lot of this music pertains to how I feel so privileged in many ways. Some of the songs that I wrote are sort of prayers for hope for things to be better.

LJN: How so?

LMHO: For example, a song like “Jus Ad Bellum”; there are people in this world who don’t have the same luck as me, just for the sheer factor of me being born in a family, in a place where I’ve not had to deal with being recruited off to war, or living in a warzone.

I think about a lot of these things when I’m writing this music; it’s not like that for people around the world. So, some of this music pertains to hope and is sort of a question, a proposal, for us to enjoy the moments we have with each other.

“Circles” — the hedonic treadmill — is about our pursuit of happiness, particularly with material possessions. But just that idea of: we think we’re going to get happy if we get this one thing, or this happens. 

The Glass Hours album artwork

It’s sort of designed within The Glass Hours to be pulled into the present moment and to feel that frantic energy.

And something about the pandemic did make us reflect a lot on how we spend our time, and how we define happiness.

LJN: Let’s discuss each accompanist on The Glass Hours, starting with Fabian. Obviously, yours is a highly personal connection, but on a musical level — as much as that dovetails with the personal aspect — tell me how you guys communicate.

LMHO: We’ve been playing with each other since 2006, so that’s 17 years. We’ve spent a lot of time playing music together in each other’s groups, and as sidepeople in various other projects. 

We talk a lot about our concepts and the way we work through music — how we work differently, and how we work similarly. It’s such a strong connection I feel when I’m playing with him, because we have so much history. 

We’re on the same page with a lot of different ways we approach melodies and harmony; he’s taught me a lot about his use of harmony. 

It’s always a really fun exploration with him. He’s always so in the moment. We often have these inside jokes when it comes to improvising. If one of us does something unexpected, most often, we’ll be along for the ride. 

I’ll maybe have an idea of what we’re going for, and we’ll try to get that and see if we can create something more exciting in that particular moment. 

There are moments we play songs together that we know well, and we might infer something in a slightly different key or quote another song of mine, and we’ll try and grab that and see where that leads. 

It’s really fun; it’s really amazing to have a relationship like that with someone — to know each other’s repertoire so deeply and to be able to be so flexible in the moment. Fabian’s got such strong ears, and he’s ready to go with you. He’s courageous, and it’s really inspiring to play with that energy in a band.

Linda May Han Oh holding acoustic bass
Linda May Han Oh. Photo credit Shervin Lainez

LJN: Can you get into your musical connection with Sara?

LMHO: I’ve known Sara for a long time; we used to play a little bit years ago. She was working with the same manager that I was working with, Izumi Uchida. 

I can’t remember the first time we met, but we had a lot of mutual friends who studied at Berklee or NEC. I knew of her work, and her studies with pianist Ran Blake. I am such a huge fan of Ran Blake; he worked with [the late singer and composer] Jeanne Lee.

And I’ve always been a huge fan of Sara’s voice, and her work. I’ve likened her voice to a rich, dark, full-bodied glass of wine. It’s nothing over the top; it just embodies this subtle beauty.

We used to play a little bit in her group, and we had some really beautiful moments over the years. I remember, when Izumi passed [in 2014], we played this Angolan folk song called “Muxima”. It was a really sad time when Izumi passed; it happened quite suddenly. 

It was just a beautiful moment to be there with all these wonderful people, and I remember Sara was pregnant at the time. It was just such a moving time to play duo. It’s such a gorgeous song: [sings] Muxima ue ue, muxima ue ue.

I’ve always wanted to have a project featuring her, and I’m glad that we made it happen. She’s a fellow Biophilian, so we care about the same issues and I really admire her — musically and otherwise. 

Not to mention all her work with M³ [Mutual Mentorship for Musicians]; she and [vocalist, composer and M³ co-founder] Jen Shyu are two of the most hard-working people that I know. I’m so glad she’s on this.

LJN: Can you talk about the incorporation of spoken word on The Glass Hours?

LMHO: Yes, this particular song where I featured Sara is called “Antiquity.” 

It paints a picture of someone who’s stuck in the past — who’s perhaps stuck in front of a screen, or TV, and is just being fed information that solidifies their beliefs and is not challenging their own belief systems. 

They’re just watching the same thing over and over again — the same news, and they’re wishing for this idea of what used to be without seeing what’s happening outside, or in the present moment. 

So, the lyrics reference “The sound of glass, the flicker of a heartbeat,” of someone who’s there but not really there. Who’s physically alive, but maybe not exactly there.

It references the humdrum daily life, and how we are creatures of habit. A past that repeats itself over and over again. It’s a comment — a caricature piece about someone who’s like this, and do we want to be like this? I wrote this thinking of that sort of person — is that someone I would want to be? They’re stuck in their own blissful ignorance — in some sort of purgatory. 

So, that’s how I used it in that context, and that’s the only time where there is spoken word on the album. The other lyrics are in “Jus Ad Bellum.” I didn’t want it to be an album with a lot of spoken word; I just felt it was necessary for that particular piece, to explain a bit of the narrative more.

LJN: The inclusion of Mark Turner is interesting to me; Fabian plays on [tenor saxophonist] Melissa Aldana’s next record, and I know she’s in the Turner school. Tell me about your conception of him in this world, how your paths crossed and what led him to play on this record.

LMHO: I’ve been lucky enough to play with Mark just a little bit, at various [stages]. I think the first time we played with each other was at a teaching residency at Stanford Jazz [Workshop]. 

Also, in Denmark at [the summer jazz camp in] Vallekilde, I got to see him with his students. He’s always been a hero of mine; he’s been on so many records that I’ve really loved.

I love him as a composer, and just his style — his beautiful, warm, dark sound, which I think blends so well with Sara’s voice. You can hear them on Sara’s [2020] album [Recognition] that features Mark. When I heard that, I was like, “Ooh, this would make a great combination.” To hear that sound and personality on my songs was a real trip, you know?

LJN: It’s a treat to hear Obed Calvaire appear for the first time since your debut album, Entry. Tell me about your connection with him.

LMHO: Yeah, Obed’s on my first record, which is a trio record with [trumpeter and composer] Ambrose Akinmusire. 

Over the years, besides that album, I’ve played with Obed just maybe on and off, because he’s so, so busy. He’s such an incredible drummer; he’s so dedicated to his art. There’s really nothing that he can’t do on the drums. 

I was lucky to have him on this record, and what he brings: his deep sense of groove and his sound are two things that I really connect with as a bass player.

I think as a bass player, drummers are my number one connection in the band, you know? It’s got to be someone that we trust, and someone who’s also going to challenge us and push us. And Obed does just that.

This one song, “The Imperative”: I’m really glad that features him toward the end. That song’s about grit and resilience — of pushing through to the other side of the pandemic and what we went through.

LJN: How does The Glass Hours reflect your evolution as a bassist and composer?

LMHO: There are quite a few things embedded in this music that happen to be more challenging, in terms of things I was working on with the instrument, and in terms of rhythm, in order to create movement and emotion through this music, and this tension and release.

Like, I built these rhythms that are a little more complex to highlight some of the tension. In the first track, “Circles,” although there is a pulse, there are all these rhythmic explorations; it’s kind of hard to grasp onto. That’s the idea; it’s this treadmill reminding us that we never quite stop.

But at the same time, it’s quite dramatic in the way the album flows. You start off with something that’s quite frantic, and it feels like there’s almost no grounding, until the very end. And that leads onto the stark “Antiquity.” There are sharp contrasts of mood, of space, to really highlight those differences.

As far as my evolution, I feel like I took more risks with The Glass Hours, and adding some of the vocal textures — as well as adding lyrics, which I don’t do too often — those elements I really thought a lot about while I was writing this.

And I intentionally wanted a quintet to sound bigger and fuller than a quintet, you know? Although there are some very open parts, it’s orchestrated in a way where — particularly in the bass — I’m playing more than one part at one time, and doing more than one function.

LINKS: Linda May Han Oh’s website

Purchase The Glass Hours

Linda May Han Oh interviewed for LJN ‘Mothers in Jazz’

(note: the sideperson appearances cited in the intro are collected here and here)

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