Maybe it’s the starry shirts —white speckles on midnight blue— that Ben Wendel (saxophone) and Matthew Stevens (guitar) are wearing at the front of the stage, maybe it’s the ethereal harmonics: there’s something lunar about the sounds of Linda May Han Oh’s music at the Vanguard.
Opening with ‘Blue Over Gold’ there is something of the early Portico Quartet in their sound with Oh taking the captain’s role, steering the vessel, tapping out harmonics like a morse code we all understand on first hearing. With room made for saxophone and guitar sparring as well as reducing to drums, bass + piano sections their range of sound is a dream of variety and experimentation.
In ‘Lucid Lullaby’ we continue to witness a band who have an ease and representational democratic approach to solos. Oh’s approach to leading her band appears to be to create space for everyone to shine and the result is a coherent connection of ideas (rather than itemised showboating). As well as being the compositional dynamo and driving bass at the heart of the band, Linda is also blessed with the ability to draw an audience into a story. Whether the perspective of a displaced indigenous woman in ‘Fire Dancer’ or a man breaking past a stutter to express his love in ‘Speech Impediment’ these are compositions with humanity at their centre. The use of melody-finding scat and bass (used in the last two charts of the set) has been so embedded in Esperanza Spalding’s work that it’s difficult not to draw comparison’s here, although they’re all entirely favourable. Certainly in Oh’s band, the function is more adding another harmonic layer rather than taking the mic to sing a song, and the effect works well as the evening builds to a calm, brilliant close.
Even if Stevens and Wendel did coordinate their wardrobe, this is as nothing to the intuition with which the quintet find and inspire each other harmonically through their playing. A triumph of composition, performance and band dynamics all with Linda May Han Oh as the beating, bass-ing heart at the centre.
Linda May Han Oh and her band are at the Village Vanguard playing two sets a night until 7 July — details here.