Australian-born bassist Linda Oh seems to always be in wide demand: in recent years, she could be seen performing with Sound Prints, the quintet co-led by trumpeter Dave Douglas and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano; co-conspirators like Fabian Almazan, Marcus Strickland, and a host of other internationally prominent artists; and with her own bands. Linda released her third album as a leader, Sun Pictures (Greenleaf), in late August, and she’ll be performing music from this album as well as music from Initial Here, her sophomore release, this Saturday at the Gallery. We caught up with Linda by phone to learn a bit more about the music and the experiences that inspired some of these compositions.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you say a few words about the music you’ll be playing on Friday?
Linda Oh: Some of it’s from my second album Initial Here, so there will be some tunes from that album and other tunes I’ve been working on since then. There’ll be a couple from my latest one [Sun Pictures], but it’ll mainly be from my second one.
TJG: How has your music from Initial Here and your most recent release, Sun Pictures (Greenleaf), evolved since they were recorded?
LO: The album Initial Here was a combination of several tunes that I was working on at the time; I had just taken a trip to China and Malaysia, so there were a couple tunes related to that trip. There’s one tune in particular dedicated to my grandmothers, who were both Chinese, which has lyrics. I had Jen Shyu singing half in Mandarin and half in English, but she’s in Indonesia now so we’re going to do an instrumental version of it.
We’ve modified one in particular, “Desert Island Dream,” that was pertaining to that immigrant dream of going to a new place, so that’s just a slightly different vibe; I like exploring different ways to interpret tunes. I mean, it depends on the tune and what I want from it—obviously, if it’s a tune that’s personal to me and quite sad, I wouldn’t go nuts with it, but some of them have really changed.
TJG: What’s your relationship to the musicians who’ll be joining you on Friday?
LO: Sam [Harris] I’ve played with a lot since we were both at the Manhattan School of Music. Kendrick [Scott] did the tour with us in Australia a couple years back, and then there’s Dayna [Stephens], who’s on the album.
TJG: You mentioned two compositions of yours that related to your heritage. Does your Asian-Australian background inform your musical approach in any substantial way?
LO: I think anything you create inevitably has aspects of where you came from and where you grew up, so what I write and do won’t necessarily be what someone who’s born and raised in America would write. I have lots of things that influence me; we never grew up listening to Chinese music or anything, but it’s still something that I’d like to get into.
Last time I went to China, I went with Jaleel Shaw, but I went a bit earlier and stayed later. I saw traditional shuo chang music, which translates literally to “speak-sing,” and I’ve listened to some other traditional music and I think it’s quite beautiful. I haven’t been explicitly delving into traditional Chinese music right now and converting it to jazz or anything, but I guess my only comment is that I think everything in your environment contributes to what you put out there. It’s just if you’re willing to let that happen; I think the main issue is what people get labeled as and what they want to push out.
TJG: What are your thoughts about intercultural appropriation, with regards to the music? How do you see your relationship to these other musical cultures?
LO: When I went to hang with some of these shuo chang musicians and spoke with the instrumentalists, I saw that it’s tons of work—as with any genre of music if you make it that. There was one friend of Jen’s whom I visited who showed me his books, and a lot of what he was showing me was quite intricately composed. I think it’s a tricky situation because I’m not in a position right now to go off and study shuo chang and start from the beginning.
I think whatever you do has to be honest and has to be with good intent, without an intent to water down anything in particular. It has to be something with meaning, as opposed to…there’s a difference between trying to integrate and borrow as opposed to blatantly stealing, and I like the concept of exploring these things. I think there were so many wars and stupid arguments because people just assume that other cultures are just different from theirs, but, in effect, we’re all the same but have slightly different ways we do things.
TJG: Were there any mentors or older figures who inspired you to explore your ethnic heritage and their musical traditions?
LO: There are lots of Asians that I know who’ve influenced me—or not even Asians, but people getting more involved with their own culture. That does admittedly come from being an immigrant to a Western country where you definitely were made to feel like you had to suppress a certain part of where you came from in order to assimilate. And I think that assimilation is essential when you’re immigrating, in terms of language and respecting someone else’s culture, but that feeling of having to…maybe “suppress” is the wrong word; it’s more like “modify” what you were taught.
For instance, Mandarin was something that we were kind of forced to do when we were growing up and we didn’t have Mandarin-speaking friends. We spoke a dialect at home, too, and to be completely honest, Perth is not the most diverse city. If you look at the demographics, I think Asians count for 3 percent or something [ed. note: in 2006, 2.9% of Perth residents were Chinese] . So in our primary schools, we were the only Asian kids—there was another family of half-Asian kids—but basically the intent was just to get by.
Preserving our cultural heritage wasn’t something we were particularly interested in at the time, so it’s kind of a shame now. Musically, there are a lot of things within the music that people growing up listening to Western music find hard to comprehend, so it’s just that different importance is placed on certain things.
TJG: You had been working on learning Mandarin when we last spoke. How has that been going?
LO: Yeah, it’s been a bit tricky to keep it consistent. I do have study groups that I get with every once in a while, but at the moment it’s more stuff on my own because I know what I need to work on beyond just the everyday conversation stuff. There was one group that I’m aiming to get good enough to go to, where every Wednesday they meet and there’s a topic you have to discuss. That’s my aim: to get good enough to go there.
TJG: Could you give a couple recommendations of things to check out? What’s been on your radar lately?
LO: I’ve been watching some Chinese movies to help with my Mandarin; there’s a really good one called Suzhou River, and also Farewell My Concubine. On the stupid side of things, *laughter*, I’ve been watching Peep Show, which is a really terrible British comedy.
Musically, I’ve been getting into this band called Thao and the Get Down Stay Down—it’s an American-Vietnamese band—and this band Cuddle Magic. Those are just some rock bands that I’ve been checking out.
Linda Oh performs at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, February 22nd, 2014. She’ll be joined by Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Sam Harris on piano, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.