Linda Oh: Lean In and Listen
Bassist and jazz bandleader Linda Oh offers insights on bridging training and personal expression, ditching stifling preconceptions, and the fundamental value of truly listening to the people around you.
I had written everything and wanted things a certain way. Then when I got together with the other musicians, they were strong players and I realized that whatever preconceptions I had, things weren’t necessarily going to be exactly how I wanted them. That was a great thing for me because it challenged me to think, “Okay, how am I going to let go of my initial vision and just go play?”
She is speaking about herself, of course, but it’s also striking how applicable it is to anyone—musician or listener—who finds themselves mentally tangled up in preconceptions before the music starts.
Oh’s interest in a malleable and personally expressive approach to music making is actually something that began pulling at her aesthetically much earlier. While growing up in Perth, Australia, she and her sisters studied classical music from a young age, an education her family took very seriously. And while she remains appreciative of the technical skill she derived, she stresses the importance of freedom and sincerity in the music she performs now.
“In the music that I play, I’m really allowed to do what I feel and be who I am,” she explains. Still she doesn’t feel she has abandoned her early training so much as continued developing her musical voice—appreciating the push and pull between discipline and freedom. “There was never one particular point where I thought I’m going to switch from classical into jazz or improvised music. I’m going to do one thing and not the other. It’s all music and it’s all tied in together in some way.”
And her instrument—whether an electric strapped across her body or an upright acoustic with which she moves almost as a dance partner—has become an integral piece of that self-expression. “That is who I am now. It is so much a part of my identity that I can’t imagine playing another instrument this seriously.”
While the idea of the bass player leading the band remains enough of a novelty to attract comment, Oh seems to find it simply an option among many offering unique strengths and influences on the music. She does acknowledge that her personal style may be a bit more democratic than some bandleaders and that her interests are often focused on “creating space or a palette for other people to work with.” But that isn’t to imply that she shies away from taking the reins—or the melody.
Group dynamics are an area that Oh is sensitive to since the acoustic bass often needs the support of amplification to cut through the band. Still, she sees the technical limitations of her own or any particular instrument as fuel for creating new spaces for sound.
“With the tradition of [the bass], especially within a jazz context,” she points out, “there has been emphasis placed on having a huge acoustic sound, which I definitely value and it’s something that I teach my students. But in addition to having a big string sound, a lot can be done by dialing things back. It’s like if you talk to a large crowd of people, you can talk really loudly over them, but if you try and talk softer it’s interesting to see how many people will actually lean in and listen more.”
Once again, the conversation swings around to just that: listening. And whether Oh is improvising in the company of familiar players or new colleagues, that’s a fundamental focus no matter where the music might unexpectedly take them.
“It’s risk, but you’re still playing with people and you’re still respecting people. The worst thing I think for humanity is when people aren’t listening to each other. And that’s not just a musical thing, it’s a life thing.”