The Malaysian-born, Australian-raised bassist and her band will open the La Jolla Athenaeum’s 2024 winter concert season. Grammy Award-winner Oh’s tour is in support of her CD-free sixth album, ‘The Glass Hours’․
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine and Primus are not the bands a Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist, composer and band leader usually cites as key early influences. But there is nothing usual about Linda May Han Oh, who was the model for the animated, bass-playing character Miho in the Oscar-winning Pixar film, “Soul.”
Born in Malaysia, raised in Australia and based near Boston — where she teaches at the Berklee College of Music and is a key member of the Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice — Oh has all the basses covered. This holds true as a solo artist with six acclaimed albums to her credit, a rising film score composer and as the bassist of choice in the bands of Pat Metheny, Vijay Iyer, Joe Lovano, Terri Lyne Carrington and other jazz greats.
The mother of a 3-year-old son, Nilo, Oh created and teaches a number of lessons for Apple’s BassGuru iPhone and iPad app. She is also a devoted environmentalist. Her albums are released as plastic-free CDs — and as downloads — on Biophilia, a proudly green record label founded in 2011 by her husband and frequent musical partner, Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan.
The series also features three area debuts: Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman and his band on Jan. 28; keyboard phenom James Francies and his trio on Feb. 4., and German-born pianist Benjamin Lackner and his quartet, Feb. 28.
They will be followed by a spring concert series that has not yet been officially announced. It will feature a March 10 solo piano performance by Fred Hersch and a March 23 gig by organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart.
Oh’s Athenaeum performance is the second date on her 2024 West Coast tour. It’s timed to promote her most recent album, last year’s wonderfully absorbing “The Glass Hours.”
Two of the musicians who perform on the album — her pianist husband, Almazan, and Portuguese singer Sara Serpa — are on the road with Oh in her current band. The group also features saxophonist Greg Ward and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. Each brings the precision, finesse and freewheeling spirit that underpins Oh’s alternately spacious and knotty compositions.
“They are all very giving and generous people, and they are all very tenacious!” Oh said. She then happily sang the praises of each of her bandmates, individually.
Generosity and tenacity are attributes that underpin Oh’s work, both as a consistently resourceful composer and as a commanding but flash-free player on both acoustic and electric bass.
Whether leading her own ensemble or performing as a member of bands headed by Metheny, Iyer and her other widely celebrated collaborators, Oh always strives to serve the music. She performs with a striking combination of skill and craft, imagination and power, nuance and deeply felt emotion that makes even her most intricate compositions and her edgiest instrumental passages inviting.
“My goal is to be fully, 100 percent, in the moment,” the 39-year-old bassist said, speaking from her Massachusetts home in Cambridge. “When you do that, you’re encouraging the listener to do the same. And with music that treads the line between improvisation and composition, anything can happen and it’s always different (in concert).
“It’s a really special moment that can never be re-created. So, being 100 percent in the moment is what I strive to be. All the stuff we do in the practice room is to get to that comfort level to be on stage and ready.”
Oh’s album “The Glass Hours” clocks in at around 75 minutes but does not contain a single extraneous note or inflection. Inspired by the fragility of life on an increasingly fraught planet, its 10 pieces are by turns contemplative and charged, airy and dense, pensive and joyful.
“I try not to give too many instructions, because the musicians I’m playing with have a pretty good intuition about the possibilities,” Oh noted. “Anything that’s said might be more penetrating to the energy of certain sections to help the story of the song and its narrative.
“Much of it is written and built into the songs, With the improvisational sections, I genuinely have trust in the other musicians.”
It is common for bands to write, record and release a new album, followed by a tour to promote it. Oh reversed that approach for “The Glass Hours,” working the music up on the stage with her band at one of New York’s most storied jazz clubs before entering the studio.
“Right before the recording, we did a week at the (Village) Vanguard,” she said. “So, for me, the music was pretty cooked and ready to be recorded and put out. It was imperative to me that the opening song (‘Circles’) pack a punch. My intention is to take people on an emotional ride.”
Oh’s debut album as a band leader “Entry,” came out in 2009. It was released — as were her next two albums — under the name Linda Oh. Starting with her third album, 2017’s “Walk Against Wind,” she has recorded and toured using her full name, Linda May Han Oh.
She cites cultural pride as the reason.
“May-Han is my Chinese name and that’s what the name I was born with,” Oh explained. “When my family immigrated from Malaysia to Australia, my parents thought — as a way to assimilate — we should all be given names that were more European and easier to pronounce. I totally understand their reasoning. I just wanted to add my Chinese name, which is big part of me, into my professional name.”
Oh was just 3 years old when her family moved to Perth, Australia. Her two older sisters, May-Chin and May-Sian, both played piano. Within a year, so did she. At the age of 11, Oh took up clarinet and bassoon, the latter of which she played in the jazz orchestra at the Western Australian Conservatory of Performing Arts. By 15, she was also playing electric bass in garage bands and was a devoted fan of such hard-hitting rock bands as Rage Against The Machine, Primus, Mr. Bungle and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“He said: ‘Where are you from?’ I said: ‘Australia.’ He said: ‘Me, too.’ and I said: ‘I know; you were born in Melbourne!’ Then he told me he was there to see (Shorter band member) Brian Blade — ‘the best drummer in the world.’”
In 2019, Oh became an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music. Her extensive experience as a bassist, composer, band leader and concert and recording artist provides her students with invaluable real-world lessons.
What does she try to impart in her classes?
“One thing I constantly ask my students — and the first thing I ask any student — is: ‘Where do they see themselves with the music when they leave school, or in next year or two years? What kind of music do they want to be playing? What kind of lifestyle do they want to lead?’
“The majority of students respond that no one has ever asked them those questions,” she continued. “There’s always something to study or aspire to. And, sometimes, there’s this notion of not thinking (ahead) and expecting that your purpose is to fulfill a grade requirement or check off boxes. I know that’s necessary for certain programs. But, ultimately, no one will be asked what grade they got for their Performance 101 class.”
Oh cited her time as the bassist in the band of piano great Geri Allen as pivotal in helping her chart her artistic path.
“That was something Geri was all about in the time I spent with her,” Oh said. “She would ask me: ‘Is this something you want to do and are serious about?’ — as opposed to: ‘Is this something you feel you need to do because someone (else) said so?’
“Asking students the questions that I do often opens up their minds, in the sense they see other possibilities they haven’t thought about. And it gives them more incentive and resources to draw from further down the road. Because people will want to play with them because they play well and work well with other musicians. So, I encourage them to think out of the box.”
Linda May Han Oh and her husband and frequent musical partner, pianist Fabian Almazan, are the parents of a a young son, Nilo. He has traveled with the couple on their concert tours of Europe and is with them for their current West Coast tour with Oh’s Quintet.
“He just turned 3 and we figure that this is the time we can take him with us (on tour), before he starts school,” Oh said.
“At the moment, it’s worked out really well. What I love about the music community is how other musician parents have helped us out. At the North Sea Jazz Festival (in Holland), the wife of our saxophonist, Greg Ward, looked after our son. We’re lucky we find babysitters when we need them and that generous people help out backstage at our concerts.
“I’m very fortunate to have a community where I feel like being able to take your child on the road — especially as a woman musician — is getting a little easier with certain things. So, I’m hoping more musician parents decide to do this. It’s definitely not easy, but I’m glad my son gets to see the world with us.”
Linda May Han Oh’s Sunday concert will mark her fourth performance under the auspices of the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library — and her second here leading her own group.
The first was with Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas’ Sound Prints band in 2014. She returned in 2017 leading her own quartet, then again in 2019 in the trio led by her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan.
All four of those performances were booked by Daniel Atkinson, who has guided both the Athenaeum Jazz series since its inception in 1989 and the Athenaeum Jazz at Scripps Research Institute series since its inception in 1996. Oh has played in both venues and is quick to cite Atkinson — who also heads the Western Jazz Presenters Alliance — for his devotion and expertise.
“There are those in the community who are genuinely passionate about creative music and about finding space for musicians to thrive, do their craft in and share it with the world,” Oh said.
“Dan Atkinson is one of those people, paying attention to every detail — the creative programming, the venue space, the technical/logistical aspects. I’m excited to be coming back to share this music at the Athenaeum.”
“Completely unintentionally, three of the artists in the series have connections to Metheny,” said Daniel Atkinson, who launched the Athenaeum’s jazz programming 35 years ago.
“Linda May Han Oh was a member of Metheny’s quartet (from 2016 to 2020) and James Francies joined Metheny’s Side Eye Trio band in 2021. And Gilad Hekselman was personally chosen by Metheny to perform at the Kennedy Center when Metheny received his NEA Jazz Masters Award.”
What is not coincidental, Atkinson stressed, is that three of the four bands in the Athenaeum’s 2024 winter jazz series are making their area debuts as band leaders. Never mind that one of those debuts is coming four years after it was originally scheduled.
“It’s always been part of our programming to bring artists here for the first time, or for rare appearances,” Atkinson noted. “Gilad was someone I’d booked for an Athenaeum concert in April of 2020, so this is a long-delayed rescheduling from the pandemic. His drummer, JK Kim — who knocked me out when I heard him with Gilad in New York — has never played for us before.”
Keyboardist Francies did perform in 2016 at the Athenaeum Arts Center in Logan Heights in 2016, when he was the pianist for the San Diego debut by Chilean jazz singer and guitarist Camila Meza. But he has never played here before leading his own band. Neither has German-born pianist Benjamin Lackner, who — like his saxophonist, Oded Tzur — is signed to ECM Records. That’s the same German label that helped propel Metheny to international stardom back in the second half of the 1970s.
“We’ve had a long-standing commitment to presenting ECM artists, so with Ben and Oded we lucked out and are getting two in one band,” Atkinson said.
“I learned about Ben when I was attending the Jazz Ahead conference in Bremen, Germany. I was surprised to learn he had grown up in Southern California as a teenager and had studied at Cal Arts with Charlie Haden, who — of course — had worked with Pat Metheny!”