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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg.

This Friday, March 23, pianist Shai Maestro returns to The Jazz Gallery stage with his working trio, featuring Jorge Roeder on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. Maestro has been a frequent presence at the Gallery in recent years, performing in many different configurations, including solo, in dialogue with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and with larger ensembles. The show on Friday is a return to home base, as the trio prepares for an upcoming recording. We caught up with Maestro by phone to talk about the group’s new material and Maestro’s evolving compositional mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing at the show?

Shai Maestro: We’re going to play very new material—in two weeks we’ll be recording a new album.

TJG: Could you talk about the new music?

SM: Definitely! It’s been an interesting process. Composing it, it didn’t go so easily this time. It opened up mainly when I let go of trying to do it, like many other things in life. This time it’s a lot more song oriented, rather than grandiose compositions and crazy odd meters and that kind of stuff. It’s more focusing on the songs, the DNA of a simple song, and trying to play within that, just with the material and the playing, the actual improvising. That’s something new for me. I came in being comfortable with a world of a lot of composed material. So that’s great—I’m excited to play with the guys, they’re incredible. Super open for adventures and the moments that might arrive. I’ve learned the music in all twelve keys, and different tempos, for flexibility to play with what I feel in the moment.

TJG: How do you approach writing for improvisation?

SM: I try to write things that will stimulate creativity. Usually that’s an artistic choice. Static material, melodies that’re kind of downbeat-oriented; things that don’t move a lot, tend to put you in a certain mood, and if I go to that mood, I try to find small movements that will inspire creativity. Or go to a completely different world, something that will just be uncomfortable to play, or placed at a weird place in the bar, or with tension on chords where when you play the chord other options are laid in front of you, of where you can go. So every time is different; sometimes there’s very little material, sometimes there’s a lot. The idea is the same.

TJG: With writing music, do you start at the piano when you’re composing, or do you think away from an instrument?

SM: You know, my phone is full of voice memos with me singing melodies in the street. I try to write on planes, on trains when I’m traveling, on little keyboards. The best songs come out when I sit next to the piano, and when I sing. When I play and sing at the same time, singing the melody, something about that action brings more honest notes.

TJG: This new music is more song oriented—does that come out of that vocalizing?

SM: Probably. Composition is such a mysterious process. I’m very systematic, in all of the aspects of music, practicing, pretty much anything. But composition is one of those rare things that just stay mystic, this spiritual, ungraphable quality that you can’t define, you can’t catch. The singing helps, but I don’t know! [laughs]

TJG: Your piano playing incorporates a lot of both classical and jazz elements—how does that work for you?

SM: I started from classical music. That’s the basic building blocks, from when I was younger—I started when I was five. Whenever I talk to people, to students, about practicing technique, I don’t really believe in the technical exercises, the Hanon book or just scales and dry stuff. I always turn people to Chopin etudes, or Bach, the well-tempered clavier. Everything is there. From the technical aspects, it covers everything, and harmony and melody. And when I did the shift towards becoming a jazz musician, I never stopped playing classical music. It’s engrained in the language, in the way I think about long forms, like classical composers, sound production, counterpoint, a lot of it in my music comes from the classical world. I try to take something I’ll find in Bach’s music and apply it to a standard, not trying to play something in a Baroque kind of way but more thinking about counterpoint, and how the voice leads, and how to treat the minor chords, all this stuff that exists in classical music before jazz existed.

TJG: What led you to jazz?

SM: Being bored of the same notes! [laughs] Needing change. My life, in general, needs change. I love playing classical music, but when I go onstage and play a classical recital, I get nervous. I feel like there’s a script I can mess up. You start from a hundred and can only go down. I’m sure if you talk to other classical musicians they have a different view, but that’s how I feel about it. With jazz, going on stage, with improvised music, instead of starting at a hundred and having the possibility to go down, you start at zero, and you get to build up. That’s much more comforting and relaxing to me. There’s no pressure.

TJG: What have you been inspired by lately?

SM: I’m doing a project with a piano player in Israel, playing the music of Debussy and Monk. Two very different composers and personalities, but we’re taking these two worlds, not trying to make a forced fusion between them but taking elements, trying to get the spirit of them in our playing. I’ve been listening to a lot of the pieces. Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, which is completely different. Cuban rumba. Good old Miles, good old Herbie. I’ll always find something new.

Shai Maestro plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 23, 2018. Mr. Maestro, on piano, will be joined by Jorge Roeder on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.