As one of New York’s premier bassists, Linda May Han Oh knows all about the slippery, elusive nature of time. Her 2023 album The Glass Hours, a thematic collection of songs commissioned by Chamber Music America, features lyrics set to harmonically and metrically intricate music flowing from persistent and knotty questions about how we occupy our lives.
Over the past 15 years, she’s performed in the Bay Area dozens of times, accompanying jazz luminaries such as Vijay Iyer, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Through a series of high-profile gigs and commissions, Oh has attained a rarified status, maybe best exemplified by being recognizably featured as the bassist in the 2020 Pixar movie Soul. But with six performances around California with her Glass Hours Quintet next week, her work as a bandleader and composer has never been more visible on the West Coast, a development that seems, well, right on schedule.
Oh had already composed and premiered much of The Glass Hours before the advent of COVID led her and her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan, to hunker down in Perth, Australia, where she grew up and ended up giving birth to their son. Between parenthood, the sudden change of pace imposed by the pandemic, and the widespread loss of life, the whole experience amplified the existential questions raised by her album’s title, which “evokes the fragility of time and what we do with it,” Oh said.
“I was contemplating a lot of things, questioning a lot of the systems we live in and things we take for granted and how we use our limited time,” she continued, noting that the tune “Jus ad Bellum” was inspired by a course she took on international human rights law. “The piece ‘Circles’ is about striving for happiness by chasing material possessions and starts with this crazy chaotic cycle form.”
Featuring the Cuban-born, Miami-raised Almazan on piano and effects, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, Portuguese-born vocalist Sara Serpa, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., Oh’s band plays the Townhouse in Venice for Just Jazz on Jan. 22, Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Jan. 24, University of the Pacific in Stockton on Jan. 25, Stanford University’s Bing Studio on Jan. 26, and Half Moon Bay’s Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society on Jan. 28 (where tenor great Mark Turner, who performs on the album, takes over the saxophone chair).
She composed The Glass Hours for the musicians on the album, centering on Serpa, a startlingly creative artist who’s made a series of fascinating recordings in recent years, like Intimate Strangers, her 2021 project with fellow vocal explorers Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson. After working together in various settings over the past 15 years, Oh knew that Serpa’s voice was an ideal vehicle for her new songs.
“Sara’s voice is so pure and beautiful,” Oh said. “I’ve likened it to a full-bodied red wine, with this beautiful vulnerability. You can work on your craft so hard with technique and virtuosity, but there’s something about vulnerability that you can’t learn. So, Sara is perfect for this. She doubles a lot of instrumental lines and blends so effectively with Mark Turner.”
The project also brings Oh forward as a vocalist, as she harmonizes with Serpa on several tunes. The pieces open up with improvisational passages, but the intricate structures and long through-composed sections mean that “it’s really hard to improvise on these tunes,” said Serpa, who tends to work in New York and Europe. The tour for The Glass Hours marks her Bay Area debut.
“Linda’s music is very rhythmic, energetic, and intense, pushing me to different areas and unexpected places,” Serpa said. “We sometimes change the set list a bit, but it’s a work that’s all connected. I love the complexity of it. Each instrument has its own part, and it all makes sense. I love how Linda uses so many themes and reuses them through the set.”
Oh’s Palo Alto performance is part of a Stanford Live series showcasing women bandleaders that also features drummer and NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington’s New Standards project at Bing Concert Hall on Jan. 25 and alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin at Bing Studio on Jan. 27. Like Oh, Benjamin is performing widely around the region, including on Jan. 26 at San Jose’s Hammer Theatre Center and Feb. 8–10 at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center. It’s no coincidence that Oh and Benjamin both consider Carrington a mentor.
The drummer, producer, composer, and activist is the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, and her New Standards project brings to stages the music championed in the book New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers (which includes tunes by Oh and Benjamin). A member of Berklee’s bass department, Oh noted the book’s impact immediately. Walking around campus, she’s hearing students playing pieces from it, like the late pianist Geri Allen’s “Unconditional Love.”
“People are playing these great tunes,” she said. “Terri is our fearless leader, a visionary. She’s one of those people who sees things that need to be done and does them. She really does care about making things more equitable, and she’s literally about making change and crediting people who have not been recognized.”