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Q&A/Music

COVID brings jazz festival closer to home

2 November 2020

Expect a bumper line up of home-grown talent at the Perth International Jazz Festival this weekend, including some local internationals! Rosalind Appleby talks with headline act Linda May Han Oh.

How do you hold an international festival during COVID? The Perth International Jazz Festival has secured New York-based Linda May Han Oh, who has been sitting out COVID in Perth, as a headline act. The bass player talks with Rosalind Appleby about how it feels to return to Perth, maintaining a career online and her husband and musical partner, pianist Fabian Almazan.

Rosalind Appleby: When I last spoke with you it was 15 years ago and you were a young and passionate WAAPA graduate about to take on the world. We talked, among other things, about the gender issues in the jazz scene and your experience of being a female bass player. And then you did go and take on the world! Can you fill me in on where you’ve been and what has happened since then?

Linda May Han Oh: I’ve been living in NYC for the past 14 years playing bass in various bands as a side-person with musicians such as Pat Metheny, Kenny Barron, Geri Allen, as well as writing and releasing my own music with my own bands – five albums under my name as a leader. The last couple of albums have been released on Biophilia Records – the brainchild of my husband pianist Fabian Almazan. Biophilia Records is a label that unites music with environmental awareness.

It has been a busy and fulfilling musical trajectory so far, I spend a lot of my time travelling, touring, recording and writing music. This past year I started teaching as Associate Bass Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

RA: Why did you make the decision to sit out COVID in Perth? How does it feel to be back?

LO: In February/March 2020 when COVID was beginning to spread globally, we had just started a tour with guitarist Pat Metheny in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America. I was actually in Perth playing with his band in March at the Astor Theatre, and from there we finished out the Australasian leg of the tour. But by the time we arrived in Argentina, most countries were shutting down large events/concerts and we had to head back to NYC.

Soon enough all my tours and shows in the next several months were cancelled. My husband was on his way to the airport to play at the Hollywood Bowl in LA before he got the call that his live concerts were cancelled as well. All my teaching was moved online and shortly after I found out I was pregnant – so it seemed the best option was to come back to Perth and have the baby here. We are so lucky to be one of the few places in the world to be able to see and play live music and be in social contexts without worrying too much about COVID.

Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almanaz. Photo supplied

RA: Your performances as part of the Perth International Jazz Festival have a certain poetry to them. You will be playing with the WAYJO Wednesday Night Orchestra, the band you used to perform in with current musical director Mace Francis. That will be a trip down memory lane!

LO: WAYJO was a huge inspiration in my musical path and was an important catalyst in my progression into jazz music and improvisation. When I was in high school, I was only just getting a taste of jazz music and could barely play a note on the electric bass. During that time, I played bassoon in the WAYJO Composers Ensemble woodwind section and I would turn around to the big-band musicians – to musicians like Mace Francis – and I really wanted to be a part of the rhythm section. Sure enough, years later I was the bassist in that rhythm section, and it feels good to come home and be able to work with these up and coming musicians.

RA: You are also at The Rechabite on Sunday performing as a duo with Fabian. But it sounds like it will be much more than a duo: what can we expect from this blend of piano, synth, acoustic/electric bass, vocals, electronics?

LO: We’ve been playing together in various settings for the past 14 years and in the last several we’ve been playing a lot more in a duo context – doing some tours in Japan and especially during this pandemic we’ve been doing quite a few live-streams and videos for various platforms.

Fabian is not just an accomplished acoustic pianist he has also been experimenting with manipulating the acoustic piano sound through electronic effects as well was with keyboards and synthesizers. You can hear a lot of this within his albums, as well as on soundtracks he’s played on including the recent Harriet Tubman movie – Harriet. We’ll be playing mainly original music and having some fun exploring these sounds.

RA: What are your plans moving forward? How do you plan to survive this tumultuous time as a jazz musician?

LO: We’ve re-scheduled our South American dates with Pat Metheny for April 2021 so we’ll see what happens. We’re still celebrating the recent album release ‘From This Place’ on Nonesuch Records and a couple of new music videos have been recently released.

We’re still very active online – we recorded a live set that will be streamed on Nov 16th at the EFG London Jazz Festival with Jamie Oehlers and Ben Vanderwal, and other online concerts and workshops in the US and Europe.

We also teach a lot online and I still have tour dates next year with various bands, including the Vijay Iyer Trio (we have an album coming out on ECM records) and with my band in Europe.

The fact that we can be so involved in the PIJF has been invigorating, writing new arrangements and pieces for the WAYJO big band and preparing for the duo set – this keeps our creativity going despite the pandemic, and I feel so lucky to be here and be a part of it all.

Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan are the headline acts at the Perth International Jazz Festival, 6-8 November. Oh will also perform her original music with the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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