With an album called "Sun Pictures," it's no wonder bassist and composer Linda Oh's music has a strong visual component.
"I generally think of color," Oh told CTNow. "I love painter Mark Rothko. I think of music in color, and imagery is a big part of it for me."
On "Blue Over Gold," my current favorite, Oh sets up a syncopated vamp for guitarist James Muller and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel, then improvises around drummer Ted Poor's loose, long groups of seven, signaling the time to move to the next section by joining the riff, a move that sounds both spontaneous and prescriptive. ("That tune for me is 'blue over gold,'" Oh said, simply.)
Oh, who was born in Malaysia and grew up in Western Australia, lives in New York and teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. She's an active sideperson, with credits that include Slide Hampton, T.S. Monk and George Cables, and also an experienced film composer. Oh released "Sun Pictures," her third album as a bandleader, last year, with seven tracks mostly titled after photographic concepts or visions.
The album was recorded live at Columbia University in November of 2012, with players — Muller, Wendel and Poor — assembled for a gig at the Brooklyn Museum. "It was an experiment with new music and a different configuration of people whom I thought would work well together," Oh said. "It was so easy. I didn't have to do or say much."
Oh had a bunch of tunes she'd written, but she had reservations about the recording facilities at Columbia. "On a technical level, it was a bit on the lower scale," she said. "But despite that, the playing really shined." Each track on "Sun Pictures" represents a live to two-track performance, without overdubs. "That's how people did it back in the day, and a few people still do that now."
As a sideperson, Oh is more accustomed to recording situations that involve overdubs. "The luxury [with overdubs] is that you have complete control and can edit everything," she said. "But in that moment, I wanted to record exactly what we had been playing… With technology now, you can really edit something until it's great."
"Entry," her previous album, was a more traditional recording experience, which featured trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire. For "Sun Pictures," Oh wanted to change up both the instrumentation and personnel. She knew Muller, an Australian guitarist, from a house band he played in when Oh was 16; they've since worked together on other people's recordings, but never on one of Oh's dates. Wendel and Poor, both active musicians, knew each other from their time at the Eastman School of Music. "I just felt that everyone should click together," Oh said.
"Shutterspeed Dreams" starts out with Muller playing Hawaiian-sounding arpeggios, punctuated by Oh's bass on certain downbeats, before it takes a darker, more ambiguous turn. There's also a pervasive, disorienting looping effect, created by Oh in post-production using effects and equalization, "almost like a remix idea," she said.
"I didn't have the multi-tracks," Oh said. "I thought that would be a good challenge: to put something together using snippets of the live recordings."
The web of influences behind Oh's work as both a composer and improviser is complex, as one might expect. "They do mash together at a point," she said, "but it's more of a spectrum." She cites Charles Mingus and Maurice Ravel as two figures who have inspired her in both realms, and lately she finds herself listening to modernist composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). "It was the perfect thing to listen to that day, the perfect thing to discover. It's really ballsy… It reminded me of being in Japan when I stumbled into a parade, where everyone was singing."
Leading a band as a bassist remains challenging, Oh said, but she's up to the challenge.
"It has definitely changed my writing," Oh said. "I want the bass to take on more responsibility for what happens in each tune… Drummers and bass players face the same difficulty. If you're writing a piece and the melody is focused on the front line or the piano, that's a lot of trust you have to put in those musicians. I want more of the responsibility to be with the bass."