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On The Corner Masthead

Music of a Sustainable Future: A Conversation with Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan

June 10, 2019 | by Richard Scheinin

Linda Oh and Fabian

Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan are among the premiere instrumentalists of their generation. For several years now, bassist Oh has toured with Pat Metheny’s band, while pianist Almazan has been a steady presence in Terence Blanchard’s groups for more than a decade.

Increasingly, Oh and Almazan — who are married — also have established reputations for their own bands, their own albums, their own musical conceptions. Now in their mid-30s and at the top of their game, they will share a double-bill at SFJAZZ (June 13 at Miner Auditorium) — the first time they’ve co-led a program with their respective bands since 2011. Oh will lead a quartet (with Almazan sitting in on a few tunes to make it a quintet). Almazan will perform with his eight-piece chamber-jazz group known as Rhizome; it includes a string quartet, vocalist Camila Meza — and Oh, on bass.

They are busy people, constantly on the road, yet we managed to get them on the phone during a rare week when both were at their apartment in Harlem.

There was a lot to talk about. Each has a new album on Almazan’s eco-friendly Biophilia record label. Oh’s Aventurine is named for a shimmering, translucent mineral, said to symbolize the creative process. Titled This Land Abounds With Life, Almazan’s recording alludes in part to landscapes of his native Cuba, to which he recently returned after 23 years away. Both he and Oh, who grew up in western Australia, are known for their environmental activism; while on the road playing music, they also help out with waterway cleanups and tree plantings. We talked about all of that, as well as about their recent honeymoon in the Canary Islands, and about the first time they met — in 2006, when they were students at the Manhattan School of Music.

Q: Linda, you often play in Fabian’s band. Likewise, Fabian, you sometimes play in Linda’s group. When you’re onstage together, are you able to forget that you’re married?

Linda: Well, we’ve been playing music for so long. Even before we were together or married, we’d already established the playing over so many years. So, no, we don’t even think about it — do we?

Fabian: I think for any musician that’s playing improvised music, the main goal is to be completely aware of what everybody else is doing musically. Linda and I both approach playing music that way with everybody. Of course, we’re best friends, but I think when it comes time to playing music, I treat everybody equally that I play with. I really try to listen equally to whatever he or she is doing.

Q: Your music — individually, for each of you  evokes a big picture. For one thing, the titles of your compositions allude to memories, to family members, to the countries in which you grew up, to landscapes that you love. Your love of nature comes through, and the listener gets a sense of your environmental activism.

Fabian: I think Linda and I are both musicians because we want to try and help people. I’ve always felt that the role of the artist in society is to provide an emotional outlet for people, both individually and as a community. As a child, I was kind of a loner, and music, for me  it always confirmed certain emotions. So I’ve always felt this need and responsibility to be as genuine an artist as I possibly can be, just in case there are people out there who are feeling certain things and need this musical medicine.

Linda: Our music is a reflection of us. It reflects what we’ve been through in our lives and how we feel about ourselves and about our identities. In some ways, we’re both immigrants. We’ve both been exposed to different cultures or to living within different cultural landscapes. There’s a kind of malleability that we bring to situations, a way of seeing things from different perspectives. And I think that in the music we create, there is a searching for that middle space  a space that isn’t necessarily Cuban or American or Malaysian or Australian-Chinese. It’s its own place. It’s almost like the music itself is our culture; it represents a lot of what we talk about and feel as human beings.

Q: Listening to your new albums, I was stuck by certain qualities in the music. Your compositions and improvisations can get really dense, yet the music also has this total clarity about it  almost like you can see the spaces around the notes. At the same time, there’s obviously a lot of planning that goes into everything you do, and yet the music feels very spontaneous and free. So I guess I’m wondering — how do you do that?

Fabian: Sorry to put it bluntly, but I think we try not to half-ass it. Linda and I, we have a lot of respect for the art form and we don’t want to do a half-assed job with anything. We both have a lot of things going on in our lives, but I think we prioritize the craft of composition. We’re working for the music; whatever the music needs, we try to provide it. I’m not by any means saying that I’ve figured it all out. We’ve got a lot to learn. But maybe that’s it; I think we’re both very eager students.

Q: Can you summarize some of what you’ve learned from your mentors? Linda, maybe you can talk about Pat Metheny.

Linda: I’ve been listening to Pat ever since I got into jazz. And now that I’ve been playing with him  talk about someone who pays extreme attention to detail! He’s involved with every aspect of creating. Nothing is half-assed, and it’s just incredibly inspiring to be around that, to learn even just a little of what he has to teach. Also, the lineage is so important to him. He talks about all his work with Mr. Roy Haynes  and with Mr. Ron Carter, who I’ve been lucky to study with, as well. There is nothing more important than getting all that information from seasoned players.

Linda May Han Oh and Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny and Linda May Han Oh

Q: Fabian, what have you gained from your years with Terence Blanchard?

Fabian: I started playing with Terence when I was 21 or 22. First of all, I feel very lucky to be beside someone who performed with Art Blakey, as Terence did. That lineage is definitely there. Also, there’s the fact that Terence is from New Orleans. I don’t mean this to offend anyone, but I feel like New Orleans is the one city in the United States that truly has culture. People in New Orleans don’t have to be art lovers or into any kind of esoterica in order to have culture. There’s just something vibrant in that place that’s nowhere else, and that’s infused into everyone who lives there. And it comes through Terence’s playing; that folkloric thing is in there. I’m also inspired by the pure volume of things that he’s done. We’ve toured and recorded together. I’ve been in the studio with him for film scores. I’ve seen him perform with orchestras around the world, and I’ve seen him create his own operas. I’ve been the fly on the wall many times and I’ve learned what it means to think of yourself as not just a trumpet player or just a film composer or, in my case, just a pianist. He’s shown me what it means to be a person as a whole. He knows who he is. That’s something I’ve learned from him  just to be comfortable in your own skin.

Q: Your new albums feel very personal. Fabian, you have a piece titled “Uncle Tio.”

Fabian: It’s a very personal piece with a lot of layers to it. I went back to Cuba after having been gone for 23 years, and I got to see my uncle. Sadly, he passed away two months after my visit. So for me, yes, that memory is now in the music. Unfortunately, I know countless Cuban families that haven’t seen their relatives in decades.

In the end, that particular piece is about my uncle, but it’s also about the role of being an uncle. All my life, I’ve been the nephew, but now I’m the uncle. I have five beautiful little nieces, and I’m just thinking about what the future holds for them and about all the glass ceilings that may confront them in their lives. And I had all of that in my mind when I was writing the piece. As a composer you know what resonates inside you emotionally, and you try to translate that into music. It’s complicated. There’s an architecture to music that exists kind of abstractly, but somehow you know what you’re aiming for and you bring all those emotions into the process.

Q: Linda, on your new album, you have a composition titled “Rest Your Weary Head.” Tell me about that.

Linda: It’s kind of similar to what Fabian just mentioned. I wrote that for my first niece, Lia Saloman. The first part of the piece is a canon that I wrote after holding her for the first time, trying to keep her from crying and helping her to fall asleep. The second part of the composition is a bit more developed — a similar theme of almost being a lullaby, but also thinking more about the transition between wakefulness and sleep, those feelings and thought processes we all have, where all the stresses of the day, all the anxieties and happy moments, they’re all just intermingling. And when holding my baby niece, I was imagining what that process is for this new human being, and wondering what she will be when she gets older.

Q: I’ve been told that you are very can-do people. You recently renovated the kitchen in your apartment? You did it yourselves?

Linda: Fabian’s the can-do person. I’m the one who goes, “What are we doing? Why don’t we get somebody else to do it?”

Fabian: I was a pretty disorganized child, but as the owner of a record label, I’ve become very organized. So yeah, it’s a very jazzy kitchen.

Linda: You’re resourceful.

Fabian: I grew up in a family and in a place where if something broke or something went wrong, you had to figure out what to do — fix it.

Q: You’re talking about growing up in Cuba?

Fabian: I was born in Havana and lived there until I was nine. Then we spent six months in Mexico, in a lot of different places, bouncing from place to place. Eventually, we crossed the border into Texas and we ended up in Miami when I was ten. We lived in a trailer for a while and there were literally holes in the floor. So you had to fix things. It’s just a survival instinct from living with hard times.

Q: I keep thinking about the image of a “rhizome,” which is the name of your group. A rhizome refers to an invisible, underground root system — it’s what connects a group of trees, keeps them alive, even during a hard winter. So “rhizome” refers to roots, nutrition, survival, cooperation. It seems very related to everything you do, including running your record label.

Fabian: With Biophelia, our goal is to put new music into the world, of course. But our goal is also to have a dialogue within the music community about climate change and what happens to the environment — not only because we appreciate nature and the beauty of the natural world, but because we want to keep the music alive for future generations. We’re trying to make sure that the music community as a whole doesn’t just gloss over all the things that are happening outside the music community. Because all those things impact our children and our children’s children.

Linda: Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We have all these other interests that we feel strongly about, so why not incorporate them into what we do?

Fabian Almazan & Rhizome / Linda May Han Oh Quartet will perform on JUN 13 at SFJAZZ during the 37th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival.  

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.