Oh to hit the right note

Linda Oh
Bassist Linda Oh

Two strangers will meet on stage at Wangaratta, writes Roger Mitchell

THEY seem so different. She plays bass — electric and upright. He plays trumpet. She is 25, was born in Malaysia and grew up in Perth listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers. He is 67, was born in Jacksonville, Florida and grew up listening to his parents’ 78rpm Jazz at the Philharmonic records.

Both live in New York, but they have never met. In a few days they will share a stage at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, in a quartet with pianist Mike Nock and drummer Tommy Crane.

One of the joys of this festival, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, is that Linda Oh and Charles Tolliver, who are from such different generations and genres in jazz, can link up.

Yet they have much in common. Each was inspired to play when given an instrument — Tolliver’s grandmother, Lela, gave him a cornet; Oh’s uncle gave her an electric bass. Both were initially self-taught and both considered other careers— Tolliver as a pharmacist, after working for a local apothecary, and Oh as a lawyer.

Both musicians like challenges and both are perceptive, intelligent and thoughtful.

Asked about the importance of music in people’s lives, Oh says, “It’s a shame these days that everything is so overrun by TV and advertisements and reality TV that a lot of people don’t have the energy to go out to live music or put an album on and listen to it from start to finish.

“If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie said to everyone ‘You should go and see a jazz show’ everyone would go. We need more spokespeople.”

Tolliver’s view, fittingly, is borrowed from Art Blakey: “He would come up to the microphone and, in that inimitable voice of his, say ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we are here to wash away the dust from your everyday lives’. I think that’s it.”

Linda Oh says her entry to jazz was “a little backwards”, beginning with the fusion of Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea and then being turned completely around by Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson on the album Night Train.

Driven by the desire to “do something that I didn’t know much about and to learn as much as I could”, she studied bass at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, graduating with honours. Oh says Perth had many talented musicians who were “very honest about what you need to do to get better”.

Winning a Sisters in Jazz competition in 2004 gave her a chance to visit New York. She was “pretty blown away, but not just in awe of it — I checked out local musicians and universities and saw there was so much stuff to be learned out here and I knew I had to do it”.

Oh won a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music, where she completed a Masters in Jazz-based Performance and met trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire, with whom she recently released her acclaimed debut album, Entry. With Oh and Crane, Akinmusire will perform tunes from that album at Wangaratta.

Oh has never played with Tolliver, though she has heard a lot of his music. “Tommy went to New School University, where Charles has an Art Blakey Ensemble, so it will be a very interesting mix, especially with Mike Nock — I’m a huge fan.”

Tolliver recalls playing with Blakey’s Messengers “for a minute, replacing Lee Morgan, a long time ago”, but as other names of jazz identities from his past tumble out there is no self-promotion.

He says it was “an act of providence of miraculous proportions” that the young dropout from Howard University met bandleader Jackie McLean and within six months was making his first recording.

Labels such as hard bop, bebop and post bop meant little, Tolliver says. “We understood that was just print journalism. We were just trying to expand on what Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk had laid out there.”

Tolliver admits to many influences on his sound, including Gillespie (“He’s the go-to guy for inspiration”), Charlie Shavers, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Durham, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Fats Navarro and Roy Eldridge.

But Tolliver’s improvising involves taking risks. “You’re really trying to make a statement of your emotional self on that instrument and the only way I can see to do that is to get busy exploring something right away. I need to have that little bit of danger there that I might not be able to get out of what I’m trying to do.”

Tolliver will perform twice with Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, playing tunes from With Love and the recent Emperor March. With the quartet he’ll play a selection from the Mosaic Select box set.

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz starts on Friday, October 30

An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, Melbourne, on October 28

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