34-year-old, Israel-born, jazz pianist and composer, Shai Maestro, commenced his study of piano, taking classical lessons at age five. He graduated with honors from the Thelma Yellin High School of Performing Arts in Givataim. Upon being the victor in the National Jazz Ensembles Competition “Jazz Signs” in 2002 and 2003 and being awarded scholarships 2004-2010 from the America-Israel Cultural Fund for jazz piano, Shai was offered a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, full-time; but he declined under family pressure to finish his studies at a traditional school. Nevertheless, Shai received his music education when he was recruited to perform with Israeli bassist, Avishai Cohen.
Shai Maestro’s new release, Human (ECM, 2021), is his sixth album to date on ECM records. The album was recorded in the South of France; Shai just got back from touring in Europe; he spends most of his time, usually, in New York City; and when we met on Zoom for our interview, he was holed up in a small-room, inside his Tel Aviv-area home.
Maestro showed up for the virtual interview wearing a grey t-shirt. In the small room, there is a blue denim sofa and an upright piano, adjacent to it. Perhaps a piece of furniture for creating music, and a piece of furniture for beholding it.
Describe the different phenomena of playing live and playing in a studio.
These were always two very different experiences for me. And I always felt like playing in a studio is much more concise, with a lot more pressure. The music always choked, a little bit; and then when we went on stage and you feel the energy of the room, the energy of the people—you have a beer, you have a good time, and things tend to open up, because you don’t try so hard. The very act of trying sometimes hurts the effort of creating good honest music. I remember we did a master class somewhere in Europe, and one of the questions, a girl asked, “Why don’t you bring that vibe on the record?” and I thought she’s right. And so I wanted to find, when we went into the studio to record Human, to find that live energy. Within concise and to-the-point environment, the secret for me was in the preparation. The music on Human, some of it is incredibly challenging and difficult. So the preparation work was very meticulous, everyone knows the music by heart, can transpose it to different keys, knows it inside and out, and we get to a point where we can let go. So I am trying to narrow, to blur the lines between the studio and the stage, and I am happy with the outcome.
The compositions on Human are a far cry from Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”, and yet you cover the standard on the new record. What’s behind the song selection?
This one has a few different layers to it. First of all, I’ve been in love with the song for many, many years. The most famous version [I know] is by [John] Coltrane and Duke Ellington. I grew up listening to that version. It’s a ballad, and I love ballads, and I always love that art-form within the jazz world. And the second layer is allowing the composition to have more of an improvised character, so to speak. So, in other words, I would usually sit home and write melodies that have an ‘A’ section and then another ‘A’ section, and then the melody would repeat at the end; and it feels like it’s distilled—
The arrangement on Human has a funky and mathematical feel.
Right. It has 10,000 notes, as well; which to me, I took the inspiration for this arrangement from Joel Ross, the vibraphone player. I’ve heard him play many times in New York. He posted one video on Instagram, an intro, I don’t even know what song, it’s like a swirl of notes, 10,000 notes in space, it has its own internal logic, but its more loose, and at some point, as a listener, I just enjoy the splashes of color on the canvas; rather than a laser sharp surgical melody…But I always felt the pressure to be concise, to be laser-sharp, to write something that doesn’t repeat. The only thread is the melody. [I discovered this playing with] Yotam Zilberstein is a great Israeli guitar player. So that is the mood; that is the skeleton, and then I play all those notes on the top and weaved in the melody in a very displaced location.
You famously got inspired to take on jazz piano, listening to Oscar Peterson. But if you would for a moment, wax romantic on Duke.
Duke is a king. The big band work, the compositions, the swing, the simplicity; there’s this record called Money Jungle (Blue Note, 1962) that’s wonderful. There’s a record I’ve been listening to forever, it’s not a duo record, I think it’s a quartet: Duke and Louie Armstrong, it’s been in heavy rotation, since early childhood for me, back in Israel. That ease that he has, that class, it’s like royalty. I like listening to Hank Jones, seeing him play; it’s like a member of a royal family.
You named a song after Hank Jones on the new album.
Yeah, ‘Hank and Charlie’. [Named for Hank Jones and Charlie Haden].
Talk about the political charge behind the song, “They Went to War”. I saw you play a live performance of it on YouTube—I think—and you did speak at length. Could you for our interview—
Sure. Actually that song specifically is inspired by a Chinese legend. It doesn’t have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if that’s what you’re referring to. [What I intended] is called ‘The Farmer Who Bought a Horse’. It’s a story my dad told me about finding humility in not knowing whether something is good or bad. As for the political charge in the song you’re referring to is, ‘When You Stop Seeing’, a song from my third album. These days it is very, very relevant, unfortunately. The situation in the Middle East is insanely complex. One thing that makes me sad is people stop seeing each other as humans. The situation with Palestinians and Israelis is like in the [United] States: Black people and white people. All that talk that is very toxic, [but] it’s human. The Israeli side: some are doing horrible stuff, some are doing great stuff. It’s like the Palestinian side. If you generalize too much, you don’t see the person in front of you. That was that song. ‘They Went to War’, it became relevant in the last two weeks; unfortunately it has been rough out here. That’s the complex reality we live in.
How long has it been since you performed in Israel?
I [just] played in a small club here. We’re one of the first ones who—kind of—stepped out of covid, and there’s a small jazz club called Beit Haamudim, it’s really nice. I’m going to start; the tours are starting; the more official bigger stuff.
Do you feel it’s important to build the jazz scene there?
Absolutely. Man, jazz is the music of change. It is the music of heart and openness and humanity. The more the better. It’s not strictly restricted to Israel. I don’t like the word ‘jazz’, anymore. Let that ‘music’ blossom wherever.
Is it just me, or are the songs on Human, in a slower tempo than usual?
Probably; I didn’t notice that, but I guess so. Part of the privilege of being signed to ECM Records, is like, “Okay, I’ve got to get a glass of wine and sit and listen to it.” Because the reputation that the label has built throughout the years is like a quality stamp, it’s got to be good. So, if a record takes time, it has an ECM label on it, I’m more likely to give it a chance. From the other side, from the performer’s side, I can take my time; because a lot of music that is played in these tempi, you’re just swallowed in a sea of information, and you have to grab the person’s attention in the first three minutes; but ECM records start with five seconds of silence, it is so unlike anything that is going on in the music business today. It’s very liberating, and so, I played the first song, and it is called, ‘Time’, like mid-session, Manfred [Eicher] heard it and was like, “Oh yeah! That’s the first track of the album!” I was like, “What?” He was like, “Yup.” I said, “Great, awesome, let’s do that.” So, it’s not about becoming a best-seller or being successful in that way.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Oh wow. Cuban music is always in heavy rotation for me. Like, rumba…flamenco, and yesterday I was listening to Mahler’s symphony, which is wonderful. [I’ve been] checking out a lot of film-scoring stuff because I’ve been scoring films, so I’m getting deeper into that. That’s kind of exciting, because jazz education includes learning the characters of the story, who was Count Basie, who was Wynton Kelly, when were they active, how were they different stylistically; when did Herbie [Hancock] come along? You know, film-scoring has a lot of that kind of history.
How often do you get to talk with Avishai Cohen?
Bass Player (not Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player).
We did a reunion at the Blue Note, like a year and a half ago. That was fun to reconnect. It was a 10-year anniversary; that was exciting.
Are you collaborating anymore with him in the future?
Not for the moment.
A year or two ago, bassist, Jorge Roeder, performed with John Zorn’s New Masada Quartet. Did hearing Jorge play Jewish-influenced music give you any ideas? Are you comfortable keeping aesthetics and roots separate, as a composer and band leader?
No. My learning process always involves forgetting. You learn to take it in, it becomes part of your second nature, then you let go; and if it comes out, it comes out. I never tried to write something that resembles flamenco, or that has Jewish roots. It’s either real, or it’s not.
A writer from AllAboutJazz, in his review of Human, wrote, “…closing track ‘Ima’ is dedicated to Talma Maestro. Wife? Sister? Mother? Someone, anyway, clearly loved.” Can you enlighten the writer and the readers (which, I think that you did on JazzTimes)?
Oh, I did? I’ve been writing songs for family members [for a long time. I wrote songs for my] grandparents, and the second one is for my sister, but my parents were pushed to the back of the line…because it’s so complex; how do you write a song for your mother and father? I think there’s a documentary where Herbie [Hancock] is being interviewed, and he is asked to play something that would represent Miles [Davis]. If I’m not mistaking, he doesn’t play anything. Miles is everything. What can you say? Where do you even start? I might be wrong, he might play something.
I was working on this song, and my mom came running down the stairs, and she was like, “What is this song?” And I was like, “Aw, you got it.” She kind of chose the song for herself. So that’s for her and a song for my father will be written when it’s ready.
You’re talking about Horace Silver, or your own composition?
I will play my own song for my father. That’s what I mean. No pun intended.
How has being signed to ECM for so long, developed your style as a composer and an improviser?
The connection with Manfred [Eicher], was established in Avatar Studios in New York, where we recorded Theo Bleckmann’s record. We hit it off pretty strongly, and we [learned that we] share a lot of values. He is behind that sound that we all know and love: that patient, airy, sound. I mean a lot of it are the musicians, but it’s his way of hearing the sound. ‘Human’ was our third collaboration, and knowing him for quite some time now, prepared me for the recording session, so I knew that his values would be a top priority. On stage, we kind of rock out sometimes. We get to pretty intense places. I started working within dimensions with layers. There’s one song called, “Thief’s Dream”, 13/8, incredibly fast, 450 bpm or something, it’s like insanely fast, and it’s kind of like a Balkan, Bulgarian grouping, the way I group notes, it’s like 4/4 time. And so it’s very, very tense. But there’re layers. That’s the bottom layer and I want to make it a ballad. It took me six months to figure out. So I’m going to write a ballad. There’s an Israeli singer whom I really love, his name is, Arik Einstein. I imagine him singing that song. So I wrote that song and put it to the wild Balkan beat. And so, that combination allowed [me] to open the door to [a place] that is so spacious. And then by doing that, I see the road in front of me, a whole world of how to combine two opposing elements.
This album sounds more experimental than your previous releases.
That has to do with trust. The more time passes, the more experience I have with the guys, the more trust. If you play something from an honest place, that doesn’t try to manipulate the listener, the threshold of acceptance, you can pull off things that wouldn’t work otherwise. And so, I stopped being so afraid to try and put it in a box, to try and make it clear. I believe in this band, I believe in this music, so let’s experiment, let’s take the audience with us. That started around six years ago, the first record was more like, not militant, but very arranged. At some point [I decided], that’s not what I want to do. I started getting bored of this exchange, of going on stage and knowing what’s going to be, top to bottom, have people applaud, get to eat dinner, go home and get paid. That started boring me, I started going on stage and I looked at the people applauding, and I said, “Wow, I don’t really feel anything.” Music has to be more raw, not experimental, but it has to do more with the moment. And so, we started daring more and more, sometimes it can be [in the realm of] the avant-garde. I’m not afraid, anymore. And then putting it on the album was the next stage, I was like, “Okay, let me put on something that is harder to swallow.” Ironically, that’s the album that I’ve got the most positive reactions, thus far. We’re definitely taking inspiration from the masters, from Wayne [Shorter], from Herbie [Hancock], who built their whole careers on daring. And some things that are not so easy to listen to.
Changing gears. You talk about Herbie Hancock a lot, but what is your favorite Oscar Peterson performance?
The first record that I listened to was the Gershwin Songbook (Verve,1959). 25 years later, and every time I put it on, I’m like “Shit. This is some amazing stuff.”
Whom would you like to work with, given the chance?
Dead or alive?
Much of Human experiments with time, such as drawn-out rubato sections. Can you speak on this?
I just had a student, yesterday, who came to my house, and we had a talk about feeling insecure on stage, and we talked about this space, that allows you to listen rather than being active, so, I told him many times I start a concert by playing one note, and just letting it ring for a while, an uncomfortable while, and the thing is, if you don’t start by playing so many notes, but you just let the [one] note ring, there’s so much happening, the air is still being moved, the note is still there, there’s a direction, down[ward]. And so there’s a lot of beauty in less. That’s part of the reason I wrote “Hank and Charlie”, part of the reason I love minimalistic music. And so rubato is a much more active version of that one note, basically anything that has more than one note will be more active than [it]. But it gives you a place to fill in your own story, when you play less. And so, it’s kind of like cradling the listener. The album starts with a long E major. The song, “Time”—rubato all the way through—is one chord, E major, from top to bottom.
(below is a performance by Shai, with Philip Dizack on trumpet and Joel Ross on vibraphone)
You play octaves in the beginning?
I play in unison with the bass. But it’s all E major. I keep holding E, throughout. So, stuff is happening, there is a melody, but it’s just one chord. It gives me time to get familiar with the sound.
It’s been some months already, but would you comment on the passing of Chick Corea, with whom you shared a stage?
I remember exactly where I was, in Tel Aviv. Chick was a lighthouse, one of those guys. It was very sudden, because I had just seen him playing. He looked so good. He looked so young and vibrant and fresh. I remember seeing his month-long residency at the Blue Note. I was like, “C’mon, man!” We did four nights with Avishai [Cohen], maybe five, and I was like done afterward. Two sets a night, and I’m like drained. I’m 34, I should be good. If Chick wasn’t arrogant, nobody should be arrogant. It’s very sad, it happened too early.
Are you touring to promote or are you touring for the love of playing out?
Promotion is something that happens by itself, and taken care of by the people who should be taking care of it: the management team; and I focus on the music. I’m extremely lucky to be able to do that for a living. The joy of being on stage with my friends, the joy of sitting home and writing notes, writing chords and sequences, and forms for them and trying it out with them is immense; and so the answer is definitely for the love of music. An album is a snapshot of a place in time.
Have you always played with Jorge Roeder and Ofri Nehamya on your own projects?
Yeah, I played with Jorge for the last nine years and Ofri joined the band right before the recording of “The Thief”, and Philip [Dizack] joined right before this recording.
What was the impetus behind adding Philip Dizack on trumpet?
I find myself singing when I compose. And it took me a while to realize that I’m hearing a lot of instruments. I’m hearing a singer, a horn player, an instrument that can play sustained notes. So we had many ideas, we brainstormed with Jorge and Ofri, and we had amazing people that I did get to collaborate with over the years, and then when Philip’s name came up, we were like, “Oh, yep! That’s the guy!” First of all, he’s such a great musician, and his tone is beautiful. And so I always felt a strong connection with him. [So he practiced with Jorge Roeder and Ofri Nehemya] and they were serious about the music, which gets to a point where you can just let go. So, that’s part of the magic of this group: knowing the music, having a strong feeling. We’ll go between songs, we’ll change keys, we’ll change meters. We’ll cut; we’ll stop, because I don’t need to play the remaining 35 percent of what I wrote.