Pianist Shai Maestro returns to The Jazz Gallery this week, with his trio consisting of Ziv Ravitz on drums and Jorge Roeder on bass. The show will additionally feature the inimitable Mark Turner on tenor saxophone. Maestro, known for his rhythmic vigor, soaring melodies, and dense, rich voicings, is hard to pin down: As an in-demand pianist, he plays across the globe with a huge array of projects, including his own. He recently released “The Stone Skipper” with his trio, and has been busy touring and performing the album throughout the winter and fall.
Immediately after graduating from high school, Maestro spent half a decade touring the world as a member of bassist Avishai Cohen’s band. Since living in New York, Shai has played with an outrageous roster of the the city’s most visible musicians, including John Patitucci, Theo Bleckmann, Mark Guiliana, Donny McCaslin, Ben Wendel, Anat Cohen, Scott Colley, Ari Hoenig, Gerald Clayton, Justin Brown, Keith Carlock, Gilad Hekselman, Julian Lage, Kenrick Scott, Nate Smith, Nir Felder, and Linda Oh. We caught up with Shai over the phone, where we spoke about the importance of mindfulness, the strengths of the piano trio, and the power of being present on stage.
The Jazz Gallery: You and the trio just returned from a long tour through France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the UK, Norway, Ukraine, Hungary, and Belgium. What were some highlights?
Shai Maestro: Man, there were so many. It was over five weeks, touring with three different bands actually. I started on Ben Wendel’s group with Harish Raghavan and Nate Wood. Then it was Theo Bleckmann’s group with Ben Monder, Chris Tordini, and John Hollenbeck. On top of that, I was touring with my trio too. So much fun, so much travel. Great venues, and on top of it all, digging deeper into the music. each night. Each group requires different things, musically.
TJG: In what ways did each group demand something different of you?
SM: Usually, the gigs I get called for are very rhythm-oriented. I’ve been doing Ari Hoenig’s gig for the past five years. I did Mark Guiliana’s gig, which is rhythmically difficult. So the interesting thing about Theo’s group is that it’s harmony and melody oriented. Sometimes, we barely play any groove. It’s all about diving deeper into harmony. It was incredible to be around Ben Monder for that actually. With Ben Wendel’s group, they tie everything together: It’s borderless. With Wendel’s music, it’s super challenging and always beautiful. The three of them, Nate and Harish, have a longstanding trio, so it’s both my pleasure and challenge to try to fit into their strong group sound. I love Harish’s playing. He continuously drops harmonic bombs, I have to find my way through it. It’s great. And with my group, we all know the music by heart. We’re at the point where we start the gig, close our eyes, then open them after two hours. We move between songs, it’s getting more and more in the spirit of Wayne Shorter’s quartet, where you might not know where songs begin and end.
TJG: Was anything particularly tricky about moving between these groups on tour?
SM: You know, you’d think it’d be difficult to bounce around, but I play the first two bars of a piece and I’m in it. I’m like a sponge, I can absorb what’s going on around me. Once we start, I’m completely in what’s happening. It just happens naturally, and I don’t think about changing my musical values.
TJG: This trio you’re bringing to The Gallery will be similar to the group you brought in October, with Mark Turner, Joe Martin, and Ziv Ravitz. What did you play then, and what will you be bringing this time?
SM: We’re playing mainly my music, though we played one song by Ambrose Akinmusire last time, and I want to play it again, it was beautiful. I don’t feel the urge to change the repertoire too much. It’s so different each time, especially with Mark Turner. It’s the second time we’ll play together, and don’t think he needs any introduction. I told Jorge the other day during a rehearsal at the house: It really feels like being around modern-day Coltrane. Mark is so advanced, so humble, so open, his ears are huge and empathetic, he just fits into the moment. Even when he doesn’t play, his presence moves something. I can’t really explain it. So, at the show we’ll play pretty much the same repertoire, except for a song or two, but even then it’ll be completely different.
TJG: What do you think Mark Turner would say to that?
SM: [Laughs] He would say “Nah man, come on.” He’s so humble it’s crazy. It’s really inspiring, to see someone at that level. It’s the highest level out there. He’s one of my favorites. After the last gig, I came up to him and told him how inspiring it was. He just said “Man, I need to practice,” and went on like that. He’s an eternal student. Super inspiring.
TJG: In the EPK for The Stone Skipper, you mentioned something like “Music is about accepting change, dancing with it.” When performing and writing, how do you remain open to change without compromising your vision?
SM: Yep, exactly—let’s say you plan to make a right turn, and the band says “Nope, we’re going left.” The guiding principle is that there is no argument, and it becomes “Of course, we’re going to go left.” They talk about it a lot in comedy improv, the game “Yes, And.” You never decline anything. So if someone says “Oh, there’s a gun on the floor,” and points to the floor, you’d never say “No, there isn’t a gun.” You’d say “Oh yeah, that’s the gun that…” and you’d add something new. So, the integrity is the trust. You trust in your musical background and trust that you can deal with the reality of whatever comes. Because the real thing happens when you start accepting whatever comes. It’s like with meditation, the magic happens when you open yourself up.
TJG: Do you meditate regularly? Or do improv comedy?
SM: Meditation, sure. I do what I can to meditate every day. As far as improv comedy, I mean, there’s a lot of down time on tours, so many hours on the road. You can get into some pretty stupid places with your friends. You’re always naturally improvising, on and off stage… I’ll leave it there.
TJG: Gotcha. I love the different grooves on “Spirit (For Anat)” What inspired that track?
SM: Anat is my sister, and the song sounds like her, for some reason. Not sure why, exactly [laughs]. People told me they could imagine her dancing when they heard the tune. The initial inspiration came from Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. We were on tour and we played his song “Quiescence.” It’s one chord. Just one. Minor, major, I can’t remember, but the entire song doesn’t really move. It was inspiring for me, to see that I could write something as simple as that. It’s a meditative repeating groove over and over again. Without the pressure of creating some sophisticated melody, you’re just playing a vibe.
TJG: So in general, the piano trio has been a classic configuration in jazz for a long time. What are some of your favorite piano trios?
SM: Many of them, going back to Oscar Peterson and Monk trio albums, then modern guys like Brad or Chick, Herbie. Bill Evans Trio of course. there are many. My work with bassist Avishai Cohen was a different kind of trio, a different kind of music. I got used to the format by playing with Avishai, but my main influence is these other guys. People often say that playing trio feels so exposed, so naked, but I don’t see it this way. Solo piano, there’s already so much to do, you can hide behind so many things. With the trio, it’s a very natural format. I don’t try to hide, but I don’t feel exposed.
TJG: So where do you see yourself building on the tradition with your own trio?
SM: I don’t really think about it. I try to just play. Lately, I’ve begun a semi-conscious process of trying to stop seeing myself as a musician. To just look at myself first as a human being, who lives and does different stuff, and also happens to play music. That actually took a lot of pressure off the music, allowed it to breathe in a more profound way. It strengthened that connection between life and music. With that in mind, there’s not much room to be ambitious about what I want to do. I just try to be as present as I can in life, whether on stage, brushing my teeth, in a cab. When you go onstage it becomes an extension of what you are as a human, rather than this glamorous moment where everyone listens to you in the club or concert hall. You extend yourself, and the experience is not entirely yours anymore, it’s more collective. Be in the moment, play a chord, see what happens.
TJG: This sounds like the end result of a long thought process. Was there something in the music that wasn’t working for you? Were you on stage, trying to feel like a musician, and it wasn’t working?
SM: Yeah, definitely. You know, when I left Avishai’s band, it was a big decision. We were successful, the music was great, we were playing everywhere. Walking on my own was a big risk. So, my early steps were motivated by fear. “Oh shit,” I’d think, “I left a comfortable situation, I need to make it now as a musician.” And I got to a point where I hit a wall. I was standing on stage and I knew where things were going, the music was quite composed and arranged and I knew where it was gonna go, where the climax would be. It was efficient. Finish the concert, get a standing ovation, get paid, go home, everything seems to be in order. But I remember standing on stage, bowing, not feeling anything, being empty. They were applauding, and I was getting the credit, but I felt like I was cheating. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, which was to go on stage and really be present. Imagine I was talking to you now, telling you all the things I usually tell journalists, word by word. Then you go home, you write the article, we get the results we need. But what are we really doing here? Are we really communicating, or am I pretending to answer your question? Being present is a rewarding feeling which doesn’t compare with anything else. That’s my mission right now. Arranged music and composed music is good, but I want to be able to question everything on stage. Especially if I wrote the music. Because then, I have to question myself, which is even harder. I spent a lot of time composing it, thinking, “This will be an A minor, going to E,” and then on stage I ask, “Does it really have to be?”
TJG: Did you play any traditional music growing up in Israel, or experience music in a more social, non-concert context?
SM: Sure, I played a lot with my friends. Traditional Israeli music doesn’t really exist yet, it’s such a young country. We’re a country of immigrants, kind of like New York. So there’s traditional Moroccan, Tunisian music, and so on. Of course, I like to sit around the fire with friends. But my real home is jazz. That’s the format that I love.
TJG: One of your big turning points was receiving a full scholarship to Berklee, knowing it wasn’t the right thing for you, and declining the opportunity. In retrospect, can you remember what your goals and dreams were at the time?
SM: Yes. There was the before, and there was the after. Before my decision, my goals were very much ego-driven. I got the scholarship when I was in high school, so it was like my ego wanted to be a wunderkind, a young lion who takes Berklee by storm before even finishing high school. After, I realized that the ego was obscuring my will, my true interests. With the help of my mother and the principal of the high school, I finished school the right way, and it turned out to be the right thing. Given the choice, being a wunderkind doesn’t strike me as the best thing one can do.
TJG: It’s remarkable, the similarity between that decision and your more recent decision to “stop thinking of yourself as a musician.”
SM: Most of the time, if not all of the time, ego-driven decisions are the wrong decisions. If you can learn to breathe for a second and look at what you really want to do, the answer is there. You just have to peel that ego layer and keep on going.
TJG: Seems easier said than done to identify that ‘ego layer.’
SM: I mean, that’s the practice. I learned a great lesson from one of my teachers in high school. When I got my scholarship, he asked me, “Why do you want to go to Berklee?” I was like, “Uh, because it’s Berklee.” “Yeah,” he said, “but why?” He kept asking why, why, why, until I realized I didn’t really know why. I was following the thing people say is good to follow. I knew then what I had to do, and I stayed in Israel. But I had to question things. That lesson was a big gift at a young age.
TJG: So what kind of other projects do you have going on?
SM: Yeah—with everything that’s happening in the world today, I feel that we have to try to be more socially active. So I started working on a project for touring musicians to give back to the community. The idea is simple, musicians dedicate one day of their tour to charity, playing a concert that I’ll help organize for them. It might be in a hospital, a homeless shelter, and so on. Or, it might be donating a day’s worth of salary to Doctors Without Borders. I would like to eventually create a system that feeds itself and the community. For example: Musicians who give their time and money to this cause will receive a free flyer for the tour donated by a graphic designer who is a part of this project. If anyone who reads the interview is interested in participating, be it a musician or anyone else for that matter, please come and see me after the gig! I’m building the network these days.
TJG: Seems like a great cause, and a great way to help give back! Anything else about the trio show?
SM: I’d like to give credit to Ziv and Jorge, the guys I play with in the trio. They’re something else. When you have any kind of long term relationship in life, you get to a point where you learn your partner’s behaviors, philosophy, ways of reacting to things. In bands that stay together, you get to know each other. But these guys are restless, and we keep peeling those layers together, discovering new things about ourselves. A lot of the things I am these days, a lot of the musician I am, is due to this process. These guys are impeccable musicians and humans and deserve a lot of love.
Shai Maestro plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, April 4th, 2017. The group features Mr. Maestro on piano, Jorge Roeder on bass, Ziv Ravitz on drums, and special guest Mark Turner on tenor sax. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.