Interview with Linda May Han Oh: Identity & History


Linda May Han Oh released the album Walk Against Wind on Biophilia Records on April 14.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Bassist Linda May Han Oh’s first Monterey Jazz Festival MJF experience was in 2010, when she was a member of the band led by local-boys-made-good The LeBoeuf Brothers. Since then, the Malaysian-born, Australian-reared resident of New York City has appeared on the main stage with the Joe Lovano-Dave Douglas Quintet (for a set that was released by Blue Note in 2015 as Sound Prints: Live At Monterey Jazz Festival) in 2013 and last year with Pat Metheny’s new quartet with pianist Gwilym Simcock and drummer Antonio Sanchez.

She was back on the Garden Stage for the 60th-anniversary edition of MJF, which took place Sept. 15–17. Appearing with her own quintet of tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianist Fabian Almazan and drummer Rudy Royston, the bassist played in support of her new album, Walk Against Wind, released on April 14 by Alamazan’s new Biophilia label. The album features everyone on the Monterey bill save Royston, who was substituting for Justin Brown.

DownBeat spoke with Oh at a nearby rehearsal room following her group’s well-received performance.

When you were introducing your band, the audience seemed to applaud out of recognition for each musician.

Everyone’s got such distinct identities and sounds on their instruments, and they’re strong leaders as well. It brings such beautiful textures to the music, and they’re just so willing to interact. It’s refreshing, you know?

You and Rudy have a nice connection that carries over from working together with Dave.

We started doing some local gigs in New York as side people, and we’d see each other at gigs. He was on my second album [Initial Here, Greenleaf 2012], and then we started touring with Dave Douglas’ quintet.

In the past, you’ve mentioned that you have the longest musical history with Fabian.

I’ve been playing with Fabian since I first moved to New York, so almost 11 years now. I play in his bands, and he plays in mine. It’s just a no-brainer.

His playing is super sensitive and just beautiful, but ready to come with you. Fabian and Rudy, for me, they’re two people who are willing to do that.

How did you meet Ben Wendel and Matthew Stevens?

With Ben we met on some session, like at the Douglas Street Collective in Brooklyn, years ago. From there, we played as side people on other people’s gigs.

He’s such a force on the saxophone—super musical and a great listener and can pretty much do anything you ask of him. Ben is also very supportive and is always part of the ensemble, even if he’s not really a rhythm section player.

So when you’re assembling a group to play live, what comes first, instrumentation or the particular musician?

The instrumentation determines a lot of the sonic textures. But the identities, they definitely play a big role in it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Sometimes even to get subs or to reconfigure, I’ve been more erring on the side of identity and personality as opposed to instrumentation. But it’s a balance of both.

Video Exclusive: Bassist Linda May Han Oh introduces the players on her latest album, Walk Against Wind, backstage the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Speaking of balance, is it difficult to balance the responsibilities of leading a band and serving as a side person on gigs?

It’s tricky just because it’s managing time. So much of it is that.

I’ve been touring with my band the last year or so. In the past, I was more fixated on being a side person. I wanted to get as many different experiences as I possibly could. And then that would help my music as a leader.

I remember someone once telling me: “You should write and have your own music. But you should also just play with as many different people as possible and be a strong side person.” Because a lot of people don’t assume that from a woman.

You switched from double bass to bass guitar during your set. What prompted you to do that?

It’s just an added element. I’ve been playing a lot more electric these days—mainly for myself, though I play a little bit in Pat [Metheny]’s band, too. It’s just a different sound, a different texture. I still want it to sound like me.

I do think in terms of colors with a lot of these compositions. So much of it is just setting the scene. But within the set, it’s still all us—even if Fabian is doing his electronic thing.

You’ve also added wordless singing to your arsenal. Has it been difficult to vocalize and play simultaneously, or did that come naturally?

I definitely practice it, and I always say to my students that they should practice it, too. It’s a very important component and a useful tool when you’re practicing certain polyrhythmic and even bi-tonal things. It’s great for your ears.

I’ve heard that it can be particularly difficult for bass players to sing and play.

You’re thinking about intonation of the bass—well, the upright bass—as well as the intonation of your voice. But it’s great to do, and a lot of musicians I know do practice it, whether or not they choose to incorporate it.

Finally, do you approach soloing differently on bass guitar?

There are definitely some technical things that are different on electric and upright, but I still want to sound like me. That’s the ultimate goal. DB

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