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Linda May Han Oh raises her game, and some big questions, on 'The Glass Hours'

Shervin Lainez

On her 2009 debut, Entry, bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh gave the impression of a nimble craft with a strong motor, built for maneuvering. To revisit that album now is to recognize elements of what Oh would develop into a signature, and maybe a universe. They’re intact even against the larger scope of her compositional ambitions on The Glass Hours, a potent and thought-provoking new work for quintet.

The album presents a swirl of intricate designs, all carried out with steady composure by musicians who meet Oh’s high standard of fluency: Mark Turner on tenor saxophone, Sara Serpa on vocals, Fabian Almazan on piano, and Obed Calvaire on drums. They attack this music with a sense of ownership, though it’s a testament to Oh’s lucid direction as a composer-bandleader that her ideas came across just as powerfully at a Winter Jazzfest showcase earlier this year, with two substitutions in the band.

Linda May Han Oh, center, with her collaborators on 'The Glass Hours' (left to right): drummer Obed Calvaire, pianist Fabian Almazan, vocalist Sara Serpa, and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
Shervin Lainez
Linda May Han Oh, center, with her collaborators on 'The Glass Hours' (left to right): drummer Obed Calvaire, pianist Fabian Almazan, vocalist Sara Serpa, and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.

One striking takeaway from that performance was the integral role of the voice in Oh’s new music. At strategic moments throughout The Glass Hours — notably on “Phosphorus,” a jittery highlight — she joins Serpa to harmonize in a wordless, seamless blend that suggests the composerly influence of one of her mentors, Pat Metheny.

But Serpa also floats a few pointed observations, as well as some open-ended questions. Oh wrote these reflective lyrics, which express a point of view informed not only by the global pandemic but also her experience as a new parent. (Oh and Almazan are partners in marriage as well as music; they have a son.) “Antiquity” questions the complacency of nostalgia, “a channel that won’t change,” and wonders aloud whether we’re fated to endlessly repeat the past. “Jus Ad Bellum” more directly laments the devastation of war, as a human toll; its righteous fury intensifies as the music shifts from a burdened yet flowing rubato to a pounding, polyrhythmic cadence.

Here as elsewhere, Oh entrusts form with feeling. There’s a sensory pull in the stuttery repetitions and shifting ground of “Circles,” which provides the album with an agenda-setting opener. In similar fashion, “Chimera” makes the best use of its mournful minor key and slippery pulse, recalling some of the pieces Oh often performs in a trio with pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. And the racing syncopations in “The Imperative” impart an urgency that each member of the group vaults forward to fulfill.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but each of those musicians does extraordinary work here. Turner, a leading figure from the generation ahead of Oh’s — at 57, he is almost 20 years her senior — delivers a touch of gravitas but also a mercurial superfluency. (Listening cold, you’d never identify him as the elder in the band.) Serpa is coolly precise yet emotionally present, while Almazan flows through the music like a river. Calvaire — who played alongside trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire on Entry, Oh’s debut, 15 years ago — radiates energy in all directions, even as he pushes the band forward.

Meaningfully, an album that opens with “Circles,” implying a loop of continuity, concludes with a piece titled “Hatchling.” This harried yet hopeful tune comes on the heels of “Respite” and “The Other Side,” which respectively consider ideas of death and the afterlife. Oh isn’t merely sharing a song for her child, if indeed that’s what she is doing at all. This is a statement of principle, and on some level a vote of confidence: if we can hold out long enough, the next generation is poised to make an entrance.

The Glass Hours is available now on Biophilia Records.

Copyright 2023 WRTI . To see more, visit WRTI.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.