Born in Malaysia and raised in Perth, Western Australia, as a teen Linda May Han Oh discovered the upright bass. It wasn’t long before the talent musician was receiving rewards and accolades from the jazz aficionados in Australia and abroad. Somewhere in the middle of all her honours, she completed her Masters at the Manhattan School of Music in 2008, and has called New York home ever since.
Composer, working jazz musician, teacher, bandleader, and unashamed Red Hot Chilli Peppers fan, are just a handful of things we can attribute to Linda May Han Oh. This remarkable woman it seems never stops. She is always striving to improve herself and teach others what she has learnt over a decade as an in demand double and electric bassists. She has recorded several jazz albums, and fronts her own band. But when she isn’t headlining her own shows, she is very happy playing for friends and jazz colleagues on tour.
It is while on tour currently with Grammy winner Pat Metheny, that I had the pleasure and privilege to catch Linda, in between shows to talk about her career and life in New York City as a jazz musician. Oh, and I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without asking her about her Red Hot Chilli Peppers obsession! Here is some of what we talked about.
Linda, tell me a little bit about your early days of playing piano, bassoon and electric bass and why the upright bass would become your instrument of choice?
I credit so much of my development, work ethic and approach to playing music, from my earlier days playing these instruments. Having a solid foundation in music theory and classical piano helped me grow tremendously and I’m grateful to have had that education from a young age and to have had various mentors/teachers who helped me along the way. I started learning through the Yamaha music method which helped solidify connections to music through moods and colours, my teachers encouraged even associating pitches to certain colours something that has stayed with me. I loved playing bassoon and still play it from time to time – it’s still one of my favourite instruments to listen to.
I started with electric bass teaching myself from books, videos and recordings. I would try to learn and play along with Led Zeppelin, Chili Peppers and Motown basslines.
I was drawn to upright bass by various local musicians and from recordings – the first and main influence was Ray Brown, listening to him on Oscar Peterson’s Night Train album changed my life and made me want to focus on the upright bass.
Born in Malaysia, raised in Western Australia and now living in New York City is an extraordinary road travelled. Linda, please tell me about your life and work in the jazz capitol of the world?
I’ve been living in Harlem for just over eleven years now and it’s definitely home. I moved here initially to do my Masters at Manhattan School of Music and learn from being on the scene and taking lessons with various bassists in the area. I’ve been learning a lot ever since the move and it still continues to challenge and inspire me.
I have learned a lot living here, about myself and about jazz music, about music in general. It still spins me out to think Duke Ellington used to live just north of where I live now, my previous apartment where I lived for nine years is about six blocks west of where Fats Waller lived.
There is so much music every night, music of a high caliber in virtually any genre you can think of and so many courageous artists I know. Day-to-day life in New York as a jazz bassist isn’t the easiest path to take. It’s expensive to live there, the rent everywhere in and around the city is creeping up. I spent many years taking every gig under the sun, taking my upright bass, electric bass and sometimes amplifier on the subway, for gigs that weren’t the most lucrative. But there’s a grit and hunger in the city that is incomparable to anywhere else I know.
I understand life as a performing double bassist, electric bassist and composer has allowed you to travel the world. Can you recall one of your earliest performances that still excites you and why?
When I was in high school I would sometimes accompany the school choir on piano. Although it was nerve-wracking, it really was a powerful experience being the only instrument playing behind a choir of roughly forty voices and I’m glad I could experience that.
In what other ways has jazz transformed your life?
I have met many amazing individuals on the road and I get to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds. That really helps to give you perspective in life and encourages you to keep an open mind.
Playing primarily improvised music, means you have to be ready for almost anything. Performing this music encourages you to make quick decisions on the fly. It makes you think about survival, resourcefulness, teamwork and problem-solving which carries through in all facets of life.
Your current on tour with Pat Metheny in Europe. I understand you will visit some twelve countries. How do you prepare for such a tour and so many shows? Surely, you must sneak in a little bit of fun too?
So much of it is keeping healthy and centred. It’s important to exercise, meditate, eat well, to read and to maintain some sort of a routine. It can be difficult to fit all of that in day-to-day, so it’s also important to just try your best, even if it means falling of the wagon a little.
It’s great to catch up with friends who have moved to various different cities and of course to check out any local tourist spots if there’s time. I have a small foldable bike I bring sometimes which is a great way to get around different cities and it’s great to see more cities using the “citi-bike” approach.
I cannot let the chance pass by without asking you about the Red Hot Chilli Pepper. I can see in my minds eye you playing all of Flea’s innovative bass hooks. Is it true you were a big fan? Which songs in particular did you enjoying playing?
I was a big fan in my high-school days – one of my all-time favorite records is Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Every song on that album is a hit to me – the grooves, the brief solos, the energy, the lyrics.
I had the pleasure of meeting Flea at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago. He is a big fan of drummer Brian Blade, who was performing with the Wayne Shorter Quartet. I was playing in the opening band – Sound Prints. After our set I walked out during intermission and I see Flea in the crowd. We chatted briefly, he complimented me on the set and asked where I was from. I said I was from Australia, he replied “me too” and I said “ yes, I know!”
Who are your musical heroes? Can you elaborate on one?
Meshell Ndegeocello. Unbelievably genuine and honest musicianship, with an approach where I always feel like, she is baring her soul. That on top of the fact she is an unbelievable vocalist, songwriter and bassist with her signature loose, deep groove and rich, weighted sound.
Earlier this year I interviewed Chicago-based Electric 5, an extraordinary quintet of cellists and violinists, who mix it up with a huge splash of classic and alternative rock. Their amazing rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy” is what initially introduced me to them. Have you ever considered doing a genre-bending crossover or do you pull from various traditions of jazz instead?
When I write and work on my music I try not to think about any specific intentions of genre-crossing. In my mind it’s about accepting and exploring different possibilities, being open-minded while respectful in my study of various types of music. Then from that place, creating something that is organic and genuine. This can be tricky because when people need to decide what category to place this music, say for practical promotional or organizational purposes that can be tricky and that will always be a challenge when you make music that doesn’t necessarily fit in a box.
I recently recorded an eight-piece group – Aventurine in August, literally the last recording session at the cherished Avatar Studios before closing. This group features a double quartet with Greg Ward on alto sax, Matt Mitchell on piano, Ches Smith on drums/vibes as well as a string quartet – Fung Chern Hwei and Sara Caswell on violins, Benni Von Gutzeit on Viola and Jeremy Harman on cello.
Some of this music I’ve been working on for almost ten years, some of the pieces were brand new. With just a glance at the instrumentation, many would assume that it could be a “jazz with classical” or “jazz with strings” approach. While I draw from many different places and even include arrangements of jazz repertoire such as Charlie Parker’s Au Private and Bill Evans’ Time Remembered, there is a much wider scope to the music. One of the pieces is derived from Chinese folk music, another is a nod to the late Andrew Hill’s music with string quartet. Another piece is an eclectic mixture of influences combined with a lot of time spent looking at various Beethoven string quartet scores. All this to say, I want my music to represent my musical development and study, not necessarily intentional genre-crossing.
Linda, you have recorded a number of jazz albums with various collaborators. Incidentally, these albums have all received critical acclaim. But, if you had to pick just one that you are most proud of, which would it be and why?
That’s tricky to say, instinctively I would probably say my latest record because I feel like the older I get, then less inhibited I am with my composing and playing. But then again, I really enjoyed the process of my making my first album. I was a little more green and in a way, being more naive lends itself to being a little more uninhibited and honest as well.
Stay tuned for the next couple of albums – I have a double quartet album and another trumpet trio album coming out.
What else in your life’s work thus far has given you the greatest fulfilment or satisfaction?
When I look back on where I started in music, although I still have a long way to go I am proud of how far I’ve come. When I also look at the friends I’ve had for years, I and relieved and grateful to have these outstanding and genuine people in my life.
I really enjoy teaching and although I can’t credit my students’ successes with my teaching, I am proud to have contributed something when I see my students succeed. I have many who are great musicians and fantastic people and it makes me proud to see them grow and develop.
My partner – Fabian Almazan, runs a record label called Biophilia which brings music together with environmental awareness, education and volunteer work. It has been amazing watching his project grow after so many hours of hard work. It has been great to get involved within the community in a hands-on way, participating in clean ups, concerts for public schools and other collaborations with environmental and educational organizations.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
More touring with my group – I’ll be playing in Europe with my band in the Spring and Autumn of 2018. I’ll be touring with other groups such as Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Fabian Almazan, and also with Pat Metheny – we have an album that we recorded last December, so I’m looking forward to releasing that.
My next releases include a trumpet trio album as well as a double quartet album – I hope to expand from that and do some larger scale writing.
I’m working on a music video collaboration with a Kenyan film maker – Kizito Gamba, the short film highlights the importance of an organization called “Hoperaisers” which aims to empower youth through sports and the arts, based in the community of Korogocho, Kenya.