'Embrace the moment, embrace the different timbres.' Peter Quinn talks to Linda May Han Oh about her Music Network Tour with Fabian Almazan this June

'Embrace the moment, embrace the different timbres.' Peter Quinn talks to Linda May Han Oh about her Music Network Tour with Fabian Almazan this June
Partners in music and partners in life, bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh and pianist and composer Fabian Almazan were born on opposite sides of the globe, brought together through jazz, and now find themselves at the epicenter of New York’s vibrant contemporary jazz scene.

Born in Malaysia and raised in Boorloo (Perth), Australia, Oh has performed and recorded with artists such as pianists Kenny Barron, Vijay Iyer and the late, great Geri Allen, sax player Joe Lovano, guitarist Pat Metheny and drummer/producer Terri Lyne Carrington. In addition to her five albums as leader – Entry (2009), Initial Here (2012), Sun Pictures (2013), Walk Against Wind (2017) and Aventurine (2019) – she has guested on over 30 more including Iyer’s most recent ECM release, Uneasy (2021) which The New Yorker called “a triumph of small-group interchange and fertile invention”.

Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida, Almazan’s musical CV is equally striking, having performed and recorded with Ambrose Akinmusire, Terence Blanchard, Avishai Cohen, Mark Guiliana, Gretchen Parlato and others. To his five albums as leader – Personalities (2011), Rhizome (2014), SWR New Jazz Meeting 2015 (2017), Alcanza (2017) and This Land Abounds with Life (2019) – can be added a further 10-plus as a side-player, including no less than five albums with the renowned trumpeter and film composer, Terence Blanchard, the most recent of which, Live (2018) was called “swaggering, often staggering” by All About Jazz.

Three weeks prior to my phone conversation with Oh, she received a Grammy Award for her part in the remarkable New Standards Vol. 1, which triumphed in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category. The brainchild of the virtuoso jazz drummer, composer, activist and educator, Terri Lyne Carrington, the album presented 11 of the 101 jazz compositions written by women which Carrington anthologized in New Standards published by Hal Leonard in September 2022. As well as Carrington and Oh, the core band also featured pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and guitarist Matthew Stevens.

“It was really surreal to be there,” Oh tells me. “I've never been to the Grammys before – Fabian has because he was nominated a few times. It was exciting for me just to be there. I didn't want to expect anything but was just very grateful to have that experience. I'm grateful to be on this project. I'm grateful for Terri Lyne. She's a visionary and she really put everything together – she brings people together from different worlds. And I'm actually here in San Francisco, we played a gig last night with the New Standards music. I've seen the whole project evolve from the very beginning. It's been years of putting together all of this music in this book of women composers. It was a beautiful process. There was a lot of hard work put into it, so I'm glad it got recognised.”

For the Ireland tour, Oh will be performing on both acoustic and electric bass, as well as singing “some complementary things,” as she puts it.

“Duo is very different from a lot of our other projects,” she says. “One of the things we’ll play is a new commission that was be premiered on 15 April. It's a two-movement commission from the University of Chicago called Mirrors and Shadows. We’ll also do some of our own tunes from previous albums but in a duo version. Sometimes it's a bit more of a concise version compared to our larger ensembles, but we also leave a lot of room for improvisation and exploring because we’ve played with each other for coming up to 17 years. And I do think that we have our own language because we've played together so much. All through the pandemic, musicians couldn't play with anyone – we played with each other for that entire time.

“I think we might throw in some standards here and there. We love learning tunes, we love learning, older repertoire, it's kind of a passion of ours as well. It kind of depends on the place that we're playing and whether or not it fits in the setlist.”

I ask whether stripping everything back to the intimacy of the duo setting allows Oh and Almazan to experiment and do things that perhaps might not be possible in a full band setting. “Completely,” Oh replies. “I think there are a lot more risks we can take because it’s just the two of us. And we can feel free to be a bit more exploratory. Fabian has a very unique way of playing piano – it's really rich in harmonic foundation but he also manipulates the acoustic sound through effects and there are a lot of different places we can go with that added element. There's one show in Ireland where there's no PA system, so we will be all acoustic which is also really fun. By the time of the Ireland tour, I'll have another album out called The Glass Hours, which features a lot of Fabian with electronics.”

Similarly, while playing upright in a full band setting is all about presence and all about creating the most fulsome sound possible, does the textural transparency of the duet – and the freedom of not having to play the bass so hard – facilitate the use of a broader range of timbres? “Yes,” Oh notes, “when it's just duo we can have a lot more dynamic variation. And that's a real test sometimes in bigger venues of how sensitive we want to make the music, how big a dynamic range we have, especially without drums.”

In terms of offering listeners a way in to the music, Oh provides some wise, considered and encouraging words which highlight the centrality of melody and rhythm in the duo's music. “I think some people come into jazz thinking that they have to understand, okay, who is soloing right now? When is the end of this solo? And: I must clap at this point. Sometimes people get intimidated with these formalities. I would just say embrace the moment, embrace the different timbres. It's very interesting to pay attention to improvisational dialogue – who is soloing at what time – but it's also okay just to listen and absorb the information. A lot of this music is quite melodic. It comes from the influence of jazz but there are many other different places that we go. Fabian is from Cuba, so there are a lot of Cuban influences, and there's going to be elements of that that will make you want to move, that will make you want to dance. And the way Fabian plays there’s a percussive element also that I think is very rooted in that music.”

With almost 17 years’ worth of music-making together under their belts, Oh and Almazan still manage to keep the duo format fresh, as Oh explains. “We're constantly checking out new music. One of the beauties of being together is that we're constantly growing and testing each other. We both teach quite a bit and I think having that perspective of mentoring another individual makes you reflect on your own craft and how you approach things.”

The duo’s vast collective experience as touring musicians, composers, side-players and bandleaders, coupled with their creative inquisitiveness and desire to explore new pathways, promises an evening of affecting, life-affirming musical connection.

by Peter Quinn

Linda May Han Oh & Fabian Almazan are touring to Kilkenny, Dublin, Kildare, Waterford, Cork, Wexford, Roscommon, Belfast from 13 - 22 June 2023.