In 2009, Shai Maestro traveled to New York to play music with like-minded artists. But the Israeli-born pianist-composer soon discovered how much he enjoyed the spontaneity and inspiration that only comes from playing with artists who think and feel and sound “different.” Such scenarios have included his long association with drummer-composer Ari Hoenig, and a recent trio performance that featured none other than saxophonist Joshua Redman as a special guest.
Maestro is currently touring The Dream Thief (2018, ECM), his fifth recording as a leader. In between rehearsals for respective duo gigs with Joel Ross and Chris Potter and sorting through compositions for a forthcoming and soon-to-be-announced orchestra project, he set aside a few moments to reflect on bandstand humanity, global communication and the inevitable post-recording process of decompression.
The Jazz Gallery: Your website bio discusses your “differentiated touch.” I find this to be a fascinating description of your playing, and I’m curious to know how you might approach the instrument differently depending on the emotional context of the moment, or even that day.
Shai Maestro: I always make the comparison to language—spoken language. You learn the alphabet, you learn the words and you learn how to make sentences, paragraphs, chapters—books, if you want. But you use the basic building blocks to express something different every time you speak—sometimes you’re angry, sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad. It’s the same with music, with two exceptions; one is how much you allow yourself to get out of the scripted narrative that you might have, and two is the essence of music being abstract so you can make up words on the spot—you’re not just dealing with a given set of words; you create new ones all the time, based on tradition of course, but you can also get out of it and create your own ways of expression. Everything you can apply to language, you can apply to music. It’s a pretty simple idea, but sometimes I find it can be harder to apply in music. It has to do a lot with just letting things happen.
TJG: Letting things happen and the idea of a natural progression is an important and deeply personal aspect of your expression. We’re skipping ahead a little, but do you want to talk about the trio behind The Dream Thief and how the three of you allow the music to happen in that natural way as opposed to forcing it to be?
SM: When I teach new music to my band members, I try to get as clear as I can with the vision of how I imagine it to be. When you’re the composer, you have to have strong vision otherwise you can’t create. We don’t use charts; it’s all by heart. So if we have a drum part, then we’ll all know the drum part; if there’s a bass part, we’ll all know the bass part. So we all know the music from every angle. The next instruction is, “Forget everything I just told you.” That comes from the trust. They know my vision. They know what the song is about. And now, we can just play. What that means is we can start from different tempos all the way to [playing in] different keys, changing a chord from major to minor, displacing stuff, repeating sections, not playing the melody at all—just playing the structure itself, playing the melody but no harmony. Whatever tools you might want to use in the moment are valid if it comes from an authentic and honest place.
And what we try to do is strengthen the radar—the honesty radar—to be able to identify what is real and what is not, because if something is real but it means omitting an “important” part of the song, by all means, go ahead and do it. Don’t play that part. If we get to the bridge and we never play another song, I’m completely fine with that, if it’s honest for us. That comes from trust. It comes from trust, knowledge and ability. And then you can just play.
When I came to New York, I studied with Sam Yael. He said that when you practice, to balance between the child and the parent. The child is the creative voice. It’s kind of the spontaneous and chaotic voice, “Oh let’s go here—now let’s go here!” And the parent is the disciplined voice: “Okay, eat your vegetables,” or “We’re practicing scales now.” And that’s how you create balance at the practice session. You are both the parent and the child. But, when you go to play a concert, you never bring the parents with you. You always take the kids. That means you have to trust that what you’ve learned and what you’ve worked hard on became second nature for you now, and you can just be you. That’s what jazz can offer us, I think—to just be ourselves.
TJG: You’ve been talking about trust. What about the other side of that? What if you’re playing something—and I’m sure this happens to every artist—and your bandmates start to realize that what you’re playing is not honest for that moment. Are they going to push back or call you out? Do you all just go with it to see what happens next—see if you can get to some honesty in the next moment?
SM: It’s a combination of many things. First of all, I try to be—I think we all try to be compassionate on the bandstand. We understand that we’re human beings and sometimes, yeah, people say things that are not coming from “the right place.” That happens. When you realize that that happens, you are at a crossroads, like you said—what do you do with it? There’s a way of calling someone out by being vibey or stopping. There are different techniques of how to do that. There’s also a way of gently saying, “Okay, I see what you’re doing. I know you and I know you at your most honest place and I know you’re not there yet. So let me just change the chord quality.” Hopefully that would be a message, whether it’s conscious or not, that would get to my band member and would allow him or her to say, “Oh okay, I got you. You see me. Haha—thanks, and let’s go back to being honest.” It can be very subtle and not vibey. That’s part of band leading and I think it’s a big part of it.
TJG: Let’s jump back for a second to music and language. Let’s assume for the purpose of argument that the sole objective of language is to communicate. If we wanted to extend your metaphor from earlier, do you believe this objective is similar to that of music? If yes, do you believe there are layers of communication?
SM: Definitely. Communication is incredibly deep—almost endless. I do believe [music is] about communication, of course. That’s not to take from the individual journey that we all go through thanks to music, alone at home. That’s not about communication with another person, but rather communicating with your higher self—or with your lower self. But eventually we go on stage, and whether there are musicians on the bandstand with us or we’re playing solo, we’re communicating our music to each other and to the listener—to the audience.
And there are many different levels of communication. I think a lot about energetic communication; what energy do you want to put out there on stage when you go? Is it forceful? Is it compassionate? Is it quiet? Where are you now, the moment you go on stage? What’s your energetic state? Are you attentive enough? If you are, do you have the tools to communicate it to the listener? Then there are the tools themselves, the notes. How do you want to use the notes? How do you want to construct your sentences? Eventually what we do is we all try to make sense of this world. We’re all in the same boat and music is something that can help us live a richer, more profound, more fulfilling life. At least it’s like that for me.
TJG: This is a question I often ask artists who have sort of come into their own not only as players, but as composers and as leaders: Can you remember a point in your development when you stopped sounding like the artists you admire and started sounding like Shai?
SM: I think it has to do with accepting that these masters—these people I admire—are an inevitable part of my sound. I started listening to a lot of Brad Mehldau, for example. And there was a period when I had to erase his music from my iPod—back when iPods were still on the market—and I had to stop listening to him because I was like, “Sh*t, I gotta find my own voice.” But later on, again, I made the comparison to language. You learned words from your parents, and they taught you how to say “glass” and “milk,” and then you learned expressions from people. And some expressions are identified with other people, but you take it and you make it your own, and then it comes out through your filters, through your system. And we are the combination of all of these—they are our story. I’m a white Jewish guy from Israel. There’s a very specific life that I lived before coming to New York. I was in a very specific place when I was exposed to Brad Mehldau. So you throw Mehldau’s music and Mehldau’s influence into my life story and you get a unique combination—not because I’m better than anyone else, but because I’m me. I really believe that everyone has a unique voice—it’s just about finding it.
TJG: Let’s get into personnel a little more. Mark Guiliana is joining you for this performance, and you’ve played on quite a few of his projects in the past. Is this the first of your collaborations together that features you as the leader?
SM: Yeah, that’s why I’m doing it. It’s a one-time thing because I play with Ofri Nehemya in my band, and he’s great. I’m very, very happy with what we’re doing with his playing. So it’s not about changing drummers; it’s more about closing the circle. We met in [bass player] Avishai’s Cohen’s band. And then I joined Mark’s band, we recorded his album and we’re going to play soon again with his band and I was kind of like, “Hey, I wanna hear you on my music, too.” And he said, “Yeah, sure,” so it’s kind of a special one-time opportunity to do that. We rehearsed a few days ago and it sounds great.
TJG: Israeli music and American music, to me it seems like they share a similar story in that both distinctive traditions have deep roots and influences that come from many other countries and regions. What are some other parallels that you’ve observed between the tradition of Israeli music and that of American music?
SM: I have to second your opinion about that. I think that eclectic essence of Israeli music is what makes it so natural for Israeli musicians to play jazz. Jazz is a very eclectic music. As you know, it gets even more eclectic every day with the internet and with the speed that music is being shared these days. There is a word in Hebrew—I don’t know if you’ve heard it—Chutzpah. Have you ever heard this word?
TJG: Sure. I grew up in New Jersey.
SM: I’m not sure exactly how to translate it. But in essence it means being very direct and not being afraid to speak your mind even at the cost of being out of place sometimes. Sometimes you just say stuff and think, “Wow, that was inappropriate”—which is great for jazz. I think Wayne Shorter said it beautifully; he said, “To me, jazz means ‘I dare you.’” As an Israeli, I feel like we say, “I dare you,” all the time. That’s how we function, how we communicate with each other. And so I’ve found my home in jazz. Jazz kind of opened the door and said, “Hey, come on in. You’re welcome here with all your complexity and with all the mess that’s over there. Bring it on in.” And I think many Israelis feel the same way.
TJG: The Dream Thief is your fifth recording as a leader. Do you feel as though your approach to composing or your identity as a composer changes from one record to the next, or is that whole process too abstract to qualify?
SM: It is very abstract, but I can definitely say that it changes every time. One of the things that keeps me here in New York is the never-ending stream of inspiration. I just have to leave the house and hear Aaron Parks playing, then get inspired, come back home and practice. Then I go out and hear this guy or this girl—people are so creative here. What happens to me after I record an album, usually, is at least six months of desert—creative desert. There’s zero output. My creativity is completely dry. But I’ve learned to identify that place. So instead of freaking out, I’m just like, “Okay I’m in the stage of soaking in right now.” So I go to concerts, I read books, I talk to people, I travel, we play the music that we’ve recorded—but I’m soaking in. And I like to check out new things that I haven’t checked out before—different cultures—transcribing percussion solos—whatever it may be. And I just soak in, soak in, soak in until the moment arrives when I’m sitting at the piano and I think, “Okay, I have a lot to say now. I don’t know what it is or how it’s going to come out, but I have enough in me to write the next chapter.” And by that time, I’m a different person than I was the year before.
TJG: So there’s really no stopping it. It just happens.
SM: Yes, if you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty. If you just sit home and you don’t get out there, your evolution will be slower. I love playing sideman gigs because I get to taste their music through my fingers. Like when you transcribe a culture, you can taste how that feels. We just recorded Ben Wendel’s new album and he wrote very beautiful but very, very difficult music it took me a long time to learn. But it was great because it’s like this new color that washes you from inside. Some sticks, some doesn’t, but you’re a different person at the end of this process.
The Shai Maestro Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Monday, March 11, 2019. The group features Mr. Maestro on piano, Jorge Roeder on bass, and Mark Guiliana 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.