For Linda May Han Oh, the word busy is an understatement. Last year, the eclectic New York City bassist, composer, and bandleader released her fourth album, Walk Against Wind, a project that, as it’s on the plastic-free Biophilia label, also ties into her passion for environmental awareness. She taught at the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college division, (this year, she begins teaching at the New School), toured with guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist-composer Fabian Almazan, and worked on projects due out in 2018, including a video collaboration centering on a Kenyan slum, a new composition for trumpet trio, and a new album with the eight-piece band Aventurine featuring works she’s been completing over the course of a decade. She describes refining pieces like a jeweler. “You need the stone underneath to shine and that might mean taking away some of the frills that you thought were important but really weren’t what you were looking for,” Oh says. “And just being OK with that process.”
She phoned from her hometown of Perth, Australia—where she and Almazan found time to marry. She chats about her journey to the bass, the challenges of being a female musician in the jazz world, and what drives new compositions.
Oh plays a Tyrolean bass from the 1920s or ’30s plus a bass that was converted into a neck-off bass by David Gage. She uses D’Addario Zyex, Pirastro Oliv, and Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore strings.
You grew up playing classical piano and bassoon. How did you find the bass?
When I was 15, I got really into rock music. I was given an electric bass by an uncle and I started teaching myself, transcribing bass lines of songs and bands that I liked, stuff like Led Zeppelin, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even Aussie rock, which was a big thing and still is in Australia. My sister also had very eclectic music tastes and she introduced me to everything from Miles Davis to Weather Report to John Zorn. From there I started transcribing a lot of that music and also just trying to learn the instrument on my own. YouTube wasn’t as big a thing as it is now so it meant going to the library and getting a lot of books on technique. It was good to have that classical foundation because I could read music and I had pretty good ears, but the rhythm element was another thing; that was something that really intrigued me.
How did you transition from classical to jazz?
Experiencing the youth jazz orchestra and being able to play bassoon in that introduced me to jazz. I wanted to know more about it, how to improvise, the history, and also more about the rhythm, which is very different from classical music and what I was used to. Playing primarily solo piano, you’re not really interacting that much with other people, and on bassoon I was playing in woodwind quintets and orchestras as well, but it’s not quite the same. I was very much influenced by the music my sister was playing at home and what I was being introduced to on records I would get out from the library and as well as the local jazz musicians. I wanted to learn more about playing the bass, about the function, how to improvise. And from there I took the electric bass into the conservatory and made the transition to upright bass, and I was influenced by a lot of local upright bassists but also great recordings of Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Miles Davis with Paul Chambers.
What was your process switching gears to jazz and improvisation?
Well, when I was really young I had learned through the Yamaha music program and we were very much encouraged to associate music with emotion and color. After that period I was suddenly thrown into this exam process where you play for competitions or for an exam and it became more of a process of grading, you know? Not that we weren’t encouraged to play with feeling, but somehow the focus changed. In terms of improvisation I felt like I had to harness some of those elements that seemed to go by the wayside.
The theory and the harmony that I had learned pertaining to those exam pieces, a lot of them made a lot more sense when I started to learn about improvisation. [They were] more like building blocks and not necessarily a means to an end but a beauty in itself. That’s kind of how I began to think about it with bass.
Fast forward—now you’re a bandleader. Was that always a goal?
My main concern was just to learn and to be a strong, solid bass player. I didn’t have necessarily a vision to be a band leader. I wanted to know how to become a great bass player whom people would want to call and play with. It’s interesting because I love composing and I love writing my own music. The bands that have been led by bass players have been a huge influence on me but it was never a conscious thing. I thought it would all fall into place as I worked on everything, the composition process, knowing how to improvise, knowing how to play the bass. It was never really “I want to be just a band leader,” or “I just want to be a side person.” There was a point where I focused a lot on just being a side person and wanted to take every gig that I could, so I could harness those skills.
As a woman, it can be very easy for people to assume that you are the front of the band. Throughout my development I was never aware, or wanted to be aware of preconceptions of female musicians versus male musicians, I just wanted to be as motivated and inspired as possible in order to be the best I could be. After I had participated in the Monk Competition in 2009, I asked an older musician for advice on how to improve my playing—he advised me to stay in New York and work on my “beat” and to play a lot as a side person because as a woman, most people don’t think you may have the skill set to be a strong supportive side person. Although I don’t believe in letting preconceptions keep you down, or having to disprove these misconceptions, there was definitely truth in what this musician was saying. It did seem to me that female musicians were often seen as “novelties” and weren’t necessarily associated with being strong, supportive musicians. I guess that was an extra motivation for me.
While we’re on the topic, is it challenging to be a female bass player in any other aspects?
There are lots of various elements, each individual encounters them in different degrees, and I feel like with my path I’ve had some incredible mentors. Everyone has encountered things along the way—there will be some women that feel that they haven’t really experienced any discrimination and that sort of thing—and there’s a lot of things that you kind of have to deal with day by day. In my mind, I’ve just had to kind of power through, you know? And I never really wanted to talk about it much because I felt that in interviews people would direct it that way and I’d rather talk about my music rather than discrimination I’ve faced, but it’s becoming more and more of a forefront topic for obvious reasons and for reasons that are incredibly important. Things need to change. I’ve noticed that more and more as I’ve gotten older and I start to teach more younger women and I’ve started to realize that a lot of the things we put up with [we] don’t have to put up with now, especially when it comes to harassment or abuse within the scene or even within the educational scene.
What can we expect to hear on your upcoming project with Aventurine?
There’s a bunch of compositions on that new record. Some I’ve been working on for a long time over the course of ten years and it’s slowly evolved. Some of them are relatively new and have various inspirations.
There are elements from everywhere that have inspired me—some are more traditional string-quartet influences, and then some are more influenced by people like pianist Andrew Hill and his string-quartet writing. So, the compositions spring from experiments with various compositional techniques.
This one arrangement I do with “Au Privave,” which is a classic Charlie Parker blues song, I kind of turn it around in a few different keys but all based on the same theme—basically the melody is being played by each instrument but each instrument is in its own key. All [pieces are] playing the same melody but different rhythms. Some people finish at different places.
What else inspired you?
Bach—one piece is based on his “Cancrizan” or “crab canon” method of writing; Chinese traditional music; and Beethoven.