Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan have been quietly making waves in the jazz scene, both together and apart, for the last decade.
The two have been making music together for nearly two decades, trading off duties as composer and band leader, achieving an almost symbiotic music sensitivity that skirts the line between classical composition and jazz improvisation. Their music is expansive and slippery, full of sudden turns and exuberant bursts of virtuosic joy. It feels organic and chaotic, cinematic in scope, but self-contained. It’s a lot of fun to listen to.
Linda May Han Oh plays the bass, both electric and acoustic, and is an associate professor of the instrument at Berklee College of Music. She has numerous releases as a bandleader, and her effortless bass playing has graced the stages and the studio recordings of such diverse musicians as Pat Metheny, Steve Wilson, and Vijay Iyer.
Fabian Almazan plays piano and electronics, has composed for film and television, runs his own record label, Biophilia Records, and has played as a sideman for Terence Blanchard, Paquito D’Rivera, Gretchen Parlato, and many others.
The IE recently sat down with the duo to discuss their upcoming performance at the Earshot Jazz Festival, their history and musical backgrounds, their philosophies on writing and performing music, and what it was that made them first fall in love with jazz music.
Frank Fiolek: You both grew up, at least in part, outside of the United States. Did your early experiences have an effect on your musical language, and do you think that they give you a unique perspective on jazz?
Linda May Han Oh: Growing up in Perth/Boorloo, Western Australia, I had a classical background on piano and bassoon and came to jazz relatively late. Australia has a strong culture of rock music and those were my early influences before arriving at jazz or creative improvised music. In high school I was self-taught on electric bass playing in rock bands with friends and the school jazz band. It was my older sister who really got me into jazz. She has a diverse taste in music and would feed me a healthy diet of all sorts of music, everything from Meshell Ndgeocello to John Zorn and Miles Davis. It was listening to Jaco Pastorius that led me to Weather Report, Wayne Shorter, then I started to listen to upright bassists such as Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, and Ray Brown — who was the reason I decided to play upright bass.
FF: When did you first find yourself drawn to jazz music, and what was it about the idiom that captured your attention and passion?
Fabian Almazan: My dad was a bass player, so I grew up hearing a lot of Jaco Pastorious playing in our fourth floor apartment in Havana, roughly from ages three to seven. The moment that ‘hooked’ me was while attending New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida as a classical piano major. Obed Calvaire was two years older than me, attending the same school. Some musicians would arrive at school an hour or two before classes started so that they could practice. I remember one day I was in a practice room and took a break to get some water. I heard a band playing jazz in one of the classrooms and peaked my head in. I saw Obed playing with a quartet and was immediately captivated by the music they were playing and the way in which they were improvising.
I love classical music to this day, but jazz, from that point on, appealed to me because it involved communicating, not as someone strictly reproducing a composer’s work, but rather expressing themselves individually within the context of a musical democracy, playing with others.
LMHO: For me, it was the feel and beat of the music as well as the improvisational element that gave me freedom away from the written music. Improvising is, for me, a beautiful form of abstract communication specific to the moment. I am forever grateful for that as a form of expression. I love improvising with and creating with other musicians on the fly. The feeling that a bandmate is listening and has “got your back” in a musical situation is priceless, as is the feeling that you have someone else’ back. Not one person in the world is the exact copy of another — each is their own unique self with individual traits that can be celebrated when we’re improvising together.
FF: I’ve talked to a few active musicians who are also educators, and I always ask some variation on the same question. Do you find that there is some symbiosis when it comes to teaching jazz? Do you ever find yourselves learning from your students?
LMHO: Absolutely. I find I’m constantly learning from my students. They inspire and challenge me in so many ways. The youth are definitely our most valuable resource and I am really impressed particularly by the camaraderie that I see in my students and how they’ve navigated obstacles such as the global pandemic at such a crucial time in their lives. Playing this music, being able to improvise, often means you get to experience how to work as a team, how to be resourceful with what you have, problem solve, and think on the fly. These skills carry through to other facets of life. Every student has different ways of learning and different levels of exposure to music and resources, so a teacher needs to be ready to respond to that. I wish every person in the world had the opportunity to play music and learn to improvise on an instrument.
FF: Jazz has always had a history of mentoring. Did either of you have an important figure or figures in your musical education that helped you find your own voice?
FA: [After leaving Cuba, my family] managed to make our way to Mexico and then crossed the border under the cover of night into the United States. We were immediately granted political asylum. Once in the U.S., we had no money, and at first I practiced on pianos that were displayed at the local piano store.
Everything changed when Conchita Betancourt appeared in my life. She was a classical piano teacher, who upon learning of my parents’ dire financial situation and my passion for music, offered to teach me for free. And she did so for three years until I was able to audition for the New World School of the Arts. It is an understatement when I say that I am eternally grateful to Conchita Betancourt.
One of the earliest jazz supporters of mine was Rudy Brito. He was a Cuban American classical piano teacher who, after learning about my interest in jazz, encouraged me to pursue it further. Sadly, he suffered from mental health issues and committed suicide a few years later. I think about him often to this day and make sure to be open with everyone about the importance of de-stigmatizing mental health struggles.
FF: Do you ever find it difficult to balance the freedom of jazz with the impulse to compose set pieces?
LMHO: I don’t really see it as a difficulty. I see it as exciting to have the freedom to choose how much of the music can be improvised or composed ahead of time. For me, it’s fun and exciting to have these options, and even at the time of the performance, things can always change.
FA: I am just grateful that I get to participate in music making. Any perceived difficulties are merely opportunities to grow and evolve. No boundaries in art.
FF: Both of you have composed for film. What are some particular jazz film scores or other pieces that you draw inspiration from?
LMHO: I’ve been loving the score for Everything Everywhere all at Once, by Son Lux (Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang). I’ve been inspired by many film scores, everything from Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver, to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score on Gone Girl, to Blanchard/Marsalis’ Mo Better Blues. I love composers like Toru Takemitsu, Jon Brion, Mark Mothersbaugh, Alan Silvestri, Ennio Morricone and Hildur Guðnadóttir. I’m also inspired by the scoring work of my Pat Metheny bandmate — drummer Antonio Sanchez.
FA: Dances with Wolves by John Barry and Bodyscore by Jony Greenwood.
FF: How long have you two been playing together? How has your shared musical language developed and deepened during that time?
LMHO: We’ve been playing together now for 17 years, growing as students in New York City, to working musicians and parents. It’s been amazing to see Fabian’s journey as an artist, seeing him develop as a pianist/composer and to see all his projects like “Rhizome” and “We Call this Home” develop over time. It’s also been amazing to see his creative process with electronics and approach to sound design.
Fabian has a way of finding something new even in some of the pieces we’ve played for years — always prepared to subvert the mission in some musical way, and I think he knows I’m often up for that challenge, too. I’m always in awe of the ways he is able to translate raw emotion into the piano. There’s something so uniquely special to me about the way he does it.
FF: What can the audience expect from your Earshot Jazz performance?
LMHO: We’ll play some new material including a piece from Fabian’s work “We Call This Home” and part of a commission I composed for the University of Chicago: “Mirrors and Shadows.” There’ll be a new percussive piece of mine and some older material from Fabian’s “This Land Abounds with Life,” featuring sound samples recorded when Fabian was traveling in rural Cuba.
While you’ll hear primarily upright bass and acoustic piano, you’ll also hear a blend of acoustic and electric sounds. The electric sounds will be from Fabian’s processing of the acoustic piano into effects pedals and on some pieces I’ll be playing some electric bass, at times this will be blended with wordless vocals.
Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan play The Wyncote NW Forum at Town Hall Seattle, Sunday 10/22, 7:30 pm as part of The Earshot Jazz Festival.