Linda May Han Oh: looking at the bigger picture

It’s been a decade since Linda May Han Oh finished her masters at the Manhattan School of Music, and in this period, she not only managed to become Australia’s greatest jazz export (or ambassador, both approaches are correct), but she has risen to become a bona fide jazz superstar, a sought-after bassist, who plays with the likes of Kenny Barron, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano – not to mention her idol, Pat Metheny. “I’d never thought I’d do that, when I was back in Perth,” she says. “I consider myself very lucky to play with the people that I’ve played,” she adds.

She may be considered one of the best jazz bassists of her generation, but the idea that she has ‘made it’ in New York, is not something that she espouses easily. “I haven’t been thinking about it in these terms,” she says. “I’m always growing. I’m always setting the bar higher and higher.” But where is the bar set at the moment? She points to two of her projects, that are about to come out in the following months – the first is an octet album with a string quartet and the other is a trumpet trio. “It really never ends,” she says, describing how she is always striving for better, in terms of writing, playing more melody and being more of a leader.

The bassist is now back to Perth, where she is scheduled to play at the Ellington, but prior to that, she has a couple of gigs set up in Melbourne; the first one is at the Jazz Lab, where she will perform alongside students and teachers of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University, where she is artist-in-residence.

A generous teacher, she embraces any opportunity to share her knowledge and has a piece of advice that applies to every young musician: “Don’t rely on your teacher,” she says. “Be your own teacher, be resourceful and think on your feet.”

After this engagement, she will take to the National Gallery of Victoria, where she is set to perform at the NGV Friday Nights series, alongside Cuban-American pianist Fabian Almazan, her partner in life and art. “We’ve been friends for a long, long time,” she says, describing the couple’s inner workings. “We went to school together, we played together in bands (ed. note most notably with Dave Douglas and Terence Blanchard) and we’re always learning from each other.”

A brilliant pianist in his own right, Fabian Almazan is also the creator of Biophilia records, a label committed to releasing music albums with absolutely no plastic involved. The music is distributed in digital form (in all types of formats, including high-fidelity ones), but the albums themselves are presented in origami-type folded cards, beautiful to the eye and meant to be treasured.

The whole concept of the label is to keep music distribution environmental-friendly – and it is a manifestation of the couple’s commitment to these issues. “We have been doing a lot of volunteer work around Manhattan,” Linda says, explaining how she is trying to focus on the “bigger picture”, both as an artist and a citizen. “There are lots of important issues happening around the world; We don’t exist in a vacuum, we are a community.”

We discuss about the nature of collective improvisation, which is often used as a metaphor for democracy, and how jazz playing is a kind of training in empathy, and she mentions one of her latest songs, a sublime composition titled ‘Speech Impediment’, featured in her latest album, Walk Against the Wind. It is a love story – with a happy end – about a person who has difficulty talking and expressing feelings. “It’s a song about going beyond what’s in the exterior,” she explains, and talks about mainstream culture’s obsession with this.

“Everybody gets judged by their exterior, everyone makes assumptions and it’s up to us to look beyond stereotypes and to what’s beneath.”

 

Linda Oh will perform at the Jazz Lab, on Thursday 13 September, as part of her collaboration with The Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University

On Friday 14 September, Linda Oh and Fabian Almazan will perform at the NGV Friday Nights program.

On Friday 21 and Saturday 22 September they will perform at the Ellington Jazz Club in Perth

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