Comfortable, not Complacent

Photo by Vincent Soyez Linda Oh is joined by Sam Harris, Kendrick Scott and Dayna Stephens, at her Feb. 22 Jazz Gallery gig.
Photo by Vincent Soyez
Linda Oh is joined by Sam Harris, Kendrick Scott and Dayna Stephens, at her Feb. 22 Jazz Gallery gig.

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Two years after winning a coveted “rising star” award from DownBeat Magazine, bassist/composer Linda Oh has certainly become much more than a vibrant young talent in the eyes and ears of jazz fans. With three albums under her name, she’s explored the depth of both acoustic and electric sounds, with a sense of open-mindedness that can push freely and intricately past idiomatic boundaries while often remaining solidly in touch with the simple, sheer beauty of tradition.

Now, Oh is months away from reaching a milestone that many of us, especially artists, are not so quick to celebrate: she’s almost 30.

But the age-centric self-consciousness that can often be found amid the New York scene (possibly marked by some panic-laden, alcoholism-inducing checklist of musical achievements) is quite absent from her thinking. Oh isn’t artistically complacent, but she’s comfortable — and she carries a kind of lighthearted wisdom that matches the spirit of her playing.

“Yeah, I guess I used to have some anxiety about turning 30,” she said, over a cup of hibiscus tea in the Village, just a few minutes before walking her bass to a gig at Christopher Street’s 55 Bar. “But then I just kind of let go of it. As you get older, I think you start to value the private victories more than the public ones.”

An ongoing effort to reach some of those private victories — one that inspired her second album, 2012’s “Initial Here” — has been a powerful journey back through her cultural heritage. Oh, who now lives in Harlem, spent her formative years in Australia (and she still carries the accent) after being born to Chinese parents in Malaysia.

“Initial Here” was rooted in that search to capture some of the soul of traditional Eastern folk music and incorporate it into the harmonically complex language of jazz, and her passion was immediately recognized by listeners and critics alike.

Talking about her upcoming February 22 gig at the Jazz Gallery, Oh said she’ll be revisiting some of the tunes from that album, as she continues telling — and learning — her story of cultural and musical identity.

“I think there are so many beautiful parts of Chinese culture that people in the West aren’t exposed to,” she explained. “The tradition is so far removed from where we are here, and I just want to keep getting to know more about aspects of that culture.”

Photo by John Baptiste Guillemin Sands of time: Linda Oh approaches 30 with a mature reverence for the past.
Photo by John Baptiste Guillemin
Sands of time: Linda Oh approaches 30 with a mature reverence for the past.

It makes sense to delve back into those feelings for the upcoming show, because on that night Oh will be joined by a quartet featuring the immensely talented tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who also backed her on “Initial Here” (pianist Sam Harris and drummer Kendrick Scott, two other key voices in the contemporary jazz sphere, will round out the group).

One particularly important tune from that record, and one to listen for at the February 22 gig, is “Thicker Than Water,” a deeply personal tribute to Oh’s grandmother, for which the bassist wrote lyrics that are half in English and half in Mandarin. It was originally recorded as a duo, with Oh emotionally bowing her instrument alongside the vocalist Jen Shyu. But, just as it’s been performed live ever since, audience members will this time hear an instrumental version that will undoubtedly bring an equally engaging vibrancy to the piece.

The upcoming show won’t just be about reviving older tunes — she’ll also be introducing several new ones that haven’t yet been publicly performed. These, she noted, have been inspired by an impulse to bring more bass oriented melodies into the mix, and to reassert the inherent tonal strength of her instrument.

“It’s not about just playing melodies all the time,” she said. “It’s really about wanting to take more responsibility with my own music, and to see in what other ways I can bring out my role a bit more.”

And while she’ll never be called uptight, it becomes clear, once you sit down for chat with her, that Linda Oh’s sense of responsibility — and alongside it, her sense of self — is unshakable. Maybe it’s just part of turning 30, but maybe there’s something much deeper and intellectually stimulating at work there — something that shows itself in every thinking pause she takes, and every note she touches.

Linda Oh, bass; Dayna Stephens, saxophone; Sam Harris, piano; Kendrick Scott, drums
Sat., Feb. 22 at 9pm & 11pm
At The Jazz Gallery
1160 Broadway, 5th Floor (at W. 27th St.)
Tickets: $20 ($10 for Jazz Gallery members)
Advance purchase: jazzgallery.org
Visit lindaohmusic.com for info on the artist