On her terrific second album, bassist and composer Linda Oh digs deep within her personal history and surrounds herself with top-flight musicians to bring her ideas to life in full-blown color. Oh was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents and when she was only three, her family migrated to Australia; by the time she moved to New York to study jazz bass at the Manhattan School of Music in 2006 she had already studied piano and bassoon, and followed classical training with a love for pop and jazz. There’s a malleable rigor to music on Initial Here, suggesting a band that trusts ones another. On tune after tune her excellent quartet — drummer Rudy Royston, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and pianist Fabian Almazan — plays with time, density, structure and intensity like taffy, dialing down and revving up, pushing and pulling.
Certain tunes explore her roots, like “Thicker Than Water,” where lyrics beautifully sung by guest Jen Shyu in both Mandarin and English offer encouragement and hope for someone in the process of being culturally uprooted, while the propulsive “Desert Island Dream” was written with a spirit of optimism, recalling the bassist’s move to Australia. Yet even without some of the narrative subtexts the music communicates expertly. The opener “Ultimate Persona” rides upon a fat, stuttering groove shaped by Oh’s forceful lines and Royston’s funky polyrhythms — giving both Stephens and Almazan plenty to improvise upon — while her ballad “Mr M,” written for Charles Mingus, wisely eschews any sort of literal homage, instead saluting the tune’s subject largely by being herself. She breathes new life into Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story song “Something’s Coming,” giving it a wonderfully halting performance that peaks with some breathless traded fours by bassist and drummer. She closes out the performance with a brief snippet of Stravinsky’s piano piece “Les Cinq Doigts.” She even veers toward some funky fusion on “Deeper Than Happy,” a high-energy slalom through stop-start effervescence — with Oh on nimble electric bass — but there’s never a whiff of grandstanding. It often takes years for jazz musicians to so adroitly bring personal experiences so directly into their music — if it happens at all — but Oh makes it clear that she’s wise beyond her years while remaining as curious as a kid.