Label/Year: Biophilia Records, 2017
Lineup - Ben Wendel: tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens: guitar; Linda May Han Oh: bass; Justin Brown: drums.
The developed technique of Linda May Han Oh, a Malaysian-born, Australia-raised bassist/composer based in New York, translates into exciting vamps and appetizing grooves on her new album, the fourth as a leader, Walk Against Wind.
For this adventurous ride, Ms. Oh, who is a distinctive member of Dave Douglas Quintet and recently toured with Pat Metheny, has gathered saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Matthew Stevens, and drummer Justin Brown. Three of the eleven tunes feature Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan, while Minji Park makes a single appearance, playing traditional Korean instruments.
The opening track, “Lucid Lullaby”, is simultaneously made of delicacy and effervescence, flowing with an amazing sense of tempo. Introduced by solo bass, the tune slowly builds texture with the unobtrusive addition of percussion and the assertive chords of Matthew Stevens, whose magnetic guitar sound stands between the clean and the dirty. The theme’s melody, fulfilled with rich accentuations, is partly delivered in unison by bass and saxophone before the improvisational section becomes dominated by the rhythmic agility of the bandleader and Stevens. After a final vamp where Brown intensifies his percussive chops, there’s an atmospheric finale that reminded me of Jan Garbarek.
Dotted by convulsive strokes of sax and piano in its early stage, “Firedancer” is a lesson on bass freedom. It’s a gravitational exercise that develops into a cyclic bass-piano unison phrase before Wendel and Stevens flare up an unorthodox dialogue.
The initial steady pace of “Speech Impediment” is determined by Oh, who draws warm voicings from strumming the bass strings. Controlled, beseeching, and out-of-sync sax/guitar clamors are placed on top of this foundation. The bassist also reveals her vocal aptitudes in a game of unisons with sax and guitar while holding onto an occasionally-shifting bass ostinato. Brown’s quasi-mechanical individual statement anticipates the reinstatement of the sluggish theme.
Ms. Oh plays electric bass and even sings on “Perpluzzle”, a funk-inflated groovy piece whose joyfulness and forward pull become close to Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution. She plays electric again on the slightly piquant “Ikan Bilis”, but this time with no vocals adorning.
You may sing an altered-pitched ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ on the title track’s melody, which serves as an ostinato, running in the background of Oh’s full-bodied acoustic improvisation. Later on, combustible drum swipes glue on a nuanced bass pedal to receive the quick-witted expressiveness of Wendel’s discourses and Stevens’ lavish guitar discharges.
The enthralling closing number, “Midnight”, has an undeniable appeal. The quartet keeps the music tense enough underneath an apparent dreamy surface, tightening and loosing their movements in accordance with the flow.
Walk Against Wind successfully straddles the realms of post-bop and modern groove music. It’s a ruminative, unfiltered, and often sparkling album that also happens to be Ms. Oh’s finest.
01 – Lucid Lullaby ► 05 – Walk Against Wind ► 11 – Midnight