Verbrugghen Hall, May 30


You have to squint pretty hard to see any sort of silver lining for live music amidst the pandemic, but here was one. COVID drove the New York-based Linda May Han Oh (bassist of choice for guitarist Pat Metheny, trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Joe Lovano) and her husband, pianist Fabian Almazan, back to her Perth hometown. Another COVID refugee was New York-based British alto saxophonist Will Vinson, so add Australian drummer Ben Vanderwal, and Oh had a band that barely needed the Sydney Con Jazz Festival to delete “international” from its name.

Mike Nock, Jonathan Zwartz and Hamish Stuart. Photos: Anthony Browell.

The bad news was that Melbourne’s shutdown kyboshed saxophonist Julien Wilson’s joining his colleagues in the other headliner, This World, so pianist Mike Nock, bassist Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Hamish Stuart went on as a trio. I’ve always thought Zwartz and Stuart ideal collaborators for Nock, because they meet the fabled pianist on more level ground than most in terms of musical personality. Initially the piano was missing in the PA, but it was located in time for Zwartz’s exquisite Little Stars, whereupon they made this fiendish room work better than anyone since Bill Frisell’s trio, keeping a tight lid on the dynamics and playing with 50 shades of intimacy. The only downside was their set’s brevity.

Linda May Han Oh. Photos: Anthony Browell.

Unfortunately Oh’s double bass was initially indecipherable in the mix for her quartet, rather undermining the whole point. It became clearer for Fire Dancer, and then the problem evaporated when she swapped to electric bass for Speech Impediment, her enthralling musical depiction of a man struggling to tell a woman he loves her. This began with Almazan electronically treating the piano, so some notes flared or distorted within impossibly desolate lines. Oh and Vanderwal added a lurching shuffle, akin to wading through water, before Oh’s wordless singing doubled the alto melody to startling effect.

She also sang on the next composition, using a multi-tracking effect surrounded by scintillating playing from all, before returning to double bass for a piece of porcelain delicacy on which Vinson’s alto sounded eerily like a human voice, and, with Vanderwal’s brushes now much softer, the bass came into glorious relief against the dancing piano. This concert could have raced to another level were some acoustic deadening introduced to Verbrugghen Hall for performances employing drums and amplification.

This World: Mary’s Underground, June 20; Linda May Han Oh & Fabian Almazan: Bennelong Restaurant, August 18.