A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg

Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg

With two albums already under their belt, the Shai Maestro Trio is a group that we should all be opening our ears to: their sophomore release, The Road to Ithaca (2013), was noted as “thoughtful and melodic” by Nate Chinen of the The New York Timesand they have received critical acclaim for playing standout live performances. Having graced our stage before as a sideman, supporting friend, and frequent collaborator with Gilad Hekselman, Israeli pianist Shai Maestro will appear this Thursday, July 10th, 2014, not just as a leader, but as a member of the cohesive trio effort that he has built with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ziv Ravitz, when they formed in Maestro’s practice studio in Brooklyn in 2010.

While Maestro has became prominent, both on players’ and listeners’ radars, through his work in Avishai Cohen’s Trio from 2006 – 2011, he has spent the last three years heavily focused in bringing the collective synergy, shared between Jorge, Ziv and himself, to the forefront of the contemporary jazz world. With a heavy touring schedule, they have supported acts like Chick Corea, Tigran Hamasyan, and Esperanza Spalding, to name a few. This is what they do:

We caught up with Shai last week by phone to discuss the evolution of the trio since its inception and the inspiration behind his work:

The Jazz Gallery: The trio just finished playing both the Ottawa Jazz Festival and Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. How were those shows for you?

Shai Maestro: Great. Montreal was crazy. It was my first time there. I had never even been there as a listener before, so I was pretty shocked to see the scope of the program with so many incredible musicians. I think the music that we played drastically evolved from performance to performance and we managed to get two or three days in where we were all locked in on the same vision. When that happens—when we’re able to relieve the compositions and play more “real”—those are the moments that we strive for.

Both festivals had great audiences in that they allowed our “deeper” side to resonate. It’s not a context where you’re trying to impress them or anything. It’s this sense that you’re in a creative zone, responding to a quiet energy in the audience and feeding off that. I don’t know how that works; it’s just a mysterious quality of the audience.

TJG: Have you been playing new material recently?

SM: Yes. I’m writing new music. We’re preparing “one-and-a-half” albums, if you will. One will be an EP: a five-song effort, hopefully a live album that we’ll record in October 2014.  We’ve picked two or three upcoming shows near Paris that we’ll likely use for that. The other effort will be a full album that we plan to record in January 2015 and release the following October. The repertoire is primarily made up of my originals. There will also be a song that Ziv composed and some Bulgarian folk songs that I have arranged.

TJG: In a previous interview with Blue Note NYC, you discussed your compositional approach and some lessons that Avishai Cohen imparted to you. Can you speak more about this process and how it has changed over time?

SM: When I first started my journey as a bandleader, the music I was writing was hyper-composed and arranged. This approach, in terms of specifying what the drums play here or what the bass plays there, really came out of Avishai’s world. Now, I feel that the more we grow as a band, the more trust I have in what we do collectively. There is less need to dictate. In a way, the compositions are getting more minimal because our mission is changing. I got a bit tired of this process where you go on stage, play a beautiful, well-executed song, have people clap, and then head on home. I’m searching for an experience that is more in tune with Wayne Shorter’s world. Where he is coming from, just exploring the unknown, it’s about being open to the moment—open to not even playing the composition.

What I’ve learned as a bandleader over time is to let go. For example, we might go on stage, I close my eyes, and start hearing this rubato piano intro that I’m about to play. I start to feel that energy flowing, I’m ready to play, and then, just before I get to play it, Ziv or Jorge might start an intro without asking. I have to look up and think to myself, “Okay, we’re here today.” It’s that split second where the bandleader’s ego has to sit back. Jorge started this thing and all the plans I had in my mind are not going to happen. You just learn to quickly say, “Okay, I guess we turn left today.” It’s fine.

Our beginning as a trio was really about creating a common language among us. It took us about two years to start to really know each other. At that point, I think we found it unnecessary to discuss the nuances anymore. It became more about being open to letting compositions evolve night over night. Do you know when you throw a stone into a river and it creates a ripple effect? That is what interests me at the moment: “What creates those ripples and helps us dig deeper?”

TJG: Are there tools or technology that you work with to practice or compose?

SM: I work with Logic if I want to practice a meter that I really need to shed: I’ll just program a drum-loop and play to it. It’s great to have a machine that can loop 17/8 for you, but, for me, at the end of the day it’s only for the purpose of locking in that odd meter until the point that it becomes natural to you. Then you ultimately have to let go of it because you’re playing with a machine, not real people. I wouldn’t call that type of practice the wrong “state of being,” but it’s a specific state of metronomic accuracy—not what happens when you play on stage.

As far as composition goes, it’s pretty amazing to see that every single song I’ve written on a keyboard in MIDI with Logic just…never made it [laughs]. Because it doesn’t come from a real instrument that has a soul, I think. Those compositions are just not as strong as the ones that I wrote on the piano.

TJG: With respect to a practice routine, is there one that you adhere to or that the group does collectively?

SM: My latest discovery with respect to practice came from speaking with Lionel Loueke. He said, “I like to get myself to a point of overload—when my brain just can’t take it anymore, where there is too much information to process.” I like that. In the past I always focused on “content.” I wanted to achieve a goal, would take a lot of breaks, and do things more in a gradual way. But right now, practicing to that “overload” state is really crazy to witness. You reach this “state of being” immediately. In the past, it was all about employing specific exercises for harmony, technique, rhythm, etc. in an organized way, but I never considered practicing as a “state of being.” We discuss this as a group a lot as well. Particularly at sound checks we’ll really try to occupy that space of overload. I love it.

TJG: In your interview with Qobuz France, you cited John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as a favorite record, which is widely regarded as a milestone in Coltrane’s exploration of spirituality. Are you spiritual yourself?

SM: Spirituality is a big word; it can mean so many different things for so many different people. The big answer is, “Yes,” that is something that is very important for me—all three of us, in fact. I love when people come up to us after a show and make a comment about the spiritual side of the music or the “human factor.” When I went to hear Jeff Ballard’s Trio with Lionel Loueke at the [Jazz] Standard about a month ago, it was in the top two or three best shows I’ve seen in New York. The whole band was incredible, but specifically seeing Lionel really brought me back to my own spiritual quest. Lionel has this enormous love for humanity.

There was a part in the concert where he found this riff that he was singing and invited the audience to sing with him. He did this gesture with his hand as if to say, “C’mon, sing with me!” Usually those kinds of interactions seem cheesy to me, but there was something so real and so loving, so spiritually profound about the way he gestured to them.  It was like, “Come be with me. I love you, and let’s all be together.” I was there with Jorge, actually. We didn’t even look at each other; we just started singing with him because it was so real [laughs]. Oh, and by the way, they were playing the most killing shit ever: it had all the crazy rhythms, beautiful harmonies, and patience that I love.

Wayne Shorter has really been the driving inspiration around my approach to the “human factor.” A few days ago we were in Canada and I was on a random YouTube kick checking out some videos, and I got to this documentary on the Wayne Shorter Quartet. There is a part at 33:15 that I ended up sending to Jorge and Ziv [laughs]. Quick side story: we recorded our last album with Rob Griffin, who has been Wayne’s sound engineer for the past 10 years. Rob told us about his travels with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, where they’d be in a van driving somewhere and then Wayne would say something that would be so outrageously deep that the driver would literally just stop the van and say, “Wait! What did you just say?” I had this video playing in my room and I had the same reaction. This is what he said:

…and the question is like, “Why are we living?” He said the answer to that is to do what you want to do. But what you have to do is interact with other people so you can do what you want to do. So because that helps them to do what they want to do—encourage people to stay together instead of breaking up.

I was like “Whoa, man! This is crazy.” For me, that is what his music is about—what he is about. You hear it on every recording, whether it’s with Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, Miles, or WSQ. It’s always that thing. He inspires me to go deeper into myself, not into his own journey; that is his greatness, I think. So as a whole this combination between the musical spark and the “human thing” could just kill me, it’s so strong. It’s amazing.

TJG: What kind of advice do you have for younger musicians coming up in the scene?

SM: Be ready to dive in. I mean, a lot of people think that one teacher can or will be your savior, take you far, or make you a good musician. I feel that being a musician is an endlessly deep thing and you have to be a musician, BE a musician. That is what you do; it’s not a hobby. Don’t look for quick advice, just dive in, start exploring, see what you love and, you know, [laughs] I’ll see you on the other side.

Shai Maestro Trio will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, July 10th, 2014. This performance features Shai Maestro on piano, Jorge Roeder on bass, and Ziv Ravitz on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. Second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Purchase tickets here.