This month marks the grand finale of The Jazz Gallery 2018-19 Residency Commission projects. On June 28 and 29, vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza will present her new work, entitled Portal, while on June 21 and 22, drummer Kassa Overall will conclude his ongoing Time Capsule project with a concert featuring visual artist Nate Lewis and a slew of special guests. The festivities start this weekend with two evenings of performances by a new trio led by pianist Shai Maestro, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack and vibraphonist Joel Ross. We sat down with Maestro to talk about the excitement and challenges of writing for this chamber-like instrumentation, and communicating a view of modern life through an abstract medium.
The Jazz Gallery: So how to you treat an event like this? Is this an opportunity? A challenge? A chance to step out of bounds a little bit?
Shai Maestro: Exactly, that’s what it is. Rio Sakairi asked that I do something that I wouldn’t do otherwise. You get funds from The Jazz Gallery through different foundations and that just allows you to sit at home and compose without needing to constantly work. It allows you to explore, experiment, and yeah, step out of bounds even further.
TJG: Will the bigger experimentation be in the instrumentation you’ll be using or in the lack thereof?
SM: I chose to write for Joel Ross and Phil Dizack. It’s going to be a trio—trumpet, vibraphone, and piano. Usually I write for solo piano or trio, but I saw this as an opportunity to experiment with the instruments and moreso than the instruments themselves, with the guys I chose to play with. Both of them are incredibly open-minded and capable musicians that will do a lot with written material and will do a lot with the space you leave for them. I’ve written many songs or melodies with them in mind.
TJG: Before this project started?
SM: No, it had originally started as a duo with Joel, but I thought Phil would be a complimentary sound. It really made sense to me.
TJG: You’ve played with Joel as a duo before, right?
SM: Yeah, it was great. We played tunes mainly. There were a few of my songs but we mostly played standards. Playing standards is always a great opportunity for me to get to know the person I’m playing with on a deeper level because I don’t have any agenda. Whereas with my music, I wrote it, so I have a vision. The goal is to not have an agenda with my music as well, but it’s harder since you know what the song is about. So playing standards with Joel allowed me to communicate with him in a really direct way.
TJG: What kind of music will you be playing at this show?
SM: It’s mainly my music and there’s one—I wouldn’t even call it an arrangement because it’s so far out, but it’s inspired by “In a Sentimental Mood,” but with Joel’s spirit. I saw at one point Joel had posted a video on Instagram of him playing “sheets of sound” type of playing—there was a lot of information played. And so I referred to that spirit and wrote an arrangement. It was a little bit of a challenge trying to add so much information to the tune and still keep it emotionally grounded.
TJG: Whose job is it to try to keep that balance?
SM: It’s the job of the composition. What I try to do when I record something in Logic is choose the simplest sounds—sounds that are almost uninspiring to hear. And I’ll try to write the music so that even in this context I feel something. If it is moving emotionally—if it works in this dry laboratory environment,that means that the composition is good.
Then when you take it to the musicians, they will of course bring life to it, but it’s very important that the DNA of the song is powerful, and to the point, and moving. Harmony and melody, that’s it. All the rest is the next step. Look at Beethoven’s Fifth [sings melody]. That material is so strong, and he built castles in the sky from this motive because of its strength.
TJG: How do you envisage the change in personnel affecting the interpretation of the DNA of your music? In a configuration like this, are you more open to new sounds?
SM: Well by definition, yes. These are new instruments and new people. With any new encounter you know less—you know less of who the person in front of you is, you know less of his or her approach to music. And so your radar and receptors are on high alert, you’re on the edge of your seat all the time as a performer.
So that’s a given for any new musician that you play with. Specifically for these two guys, their respective universes are so powerful that it will just be another step forward in alertness, discovery, patience, compassion, and adaptability.
TJG: How do you feel the lack of drums and bass will affect the music? Do you imagine yourself playing more of a rhythmic role?
SM: A lot of music can happen within an hour. There will be many different sides. There will be some rubato moments, some improvised moments, various rhythmical moments. It’s hard for me to quantify exactly how it will be. However, these guys are so strong rhythmically so I’m not worried rhythm being expressed, understood, or taken care of. It’s a given—if Phil plays a certain phrase, you can imagine what the drummer would play. I remember hearing a Chick Corea playing a solo concert in NY. It was the same with the piano—I could almost hear a drummer or a big band comping him, you could feel the 6/8 Afro-Cuban clave feel and the change to double time swing. You just hear everything in his phrasing and that’s what happens when you play with players who are so strong rhythmically—the rhythm doesn’t need to be stated, it’s in there already.
Also, I’m very used to the trio format in which melodies are usually split between Jorge and myself. You can also use the drums for playing melodies but it’s very limited. I feel like in my compositions I push the bass close to the limit. Jorge is an amazing instrumentalist and can play it all, but for some of the stuff I’ve written he’s come to me and said, “Man, a bass shouldn’t be playing this” (laughs). So having Phil or Joel there puts me into new territory where I can write super fast, high up lines, and working with instruments that have similar limits to the piano, I can push the piano to its technical limits.
TJG: Will having three players with strong melodic and harmonic conviction change your role within the trio concept? Do you plan on taking more of a back seat?
SM: As a starting point, yeah. I’ve been leading my own group for 8 years now, so I’m comfortable with taking the wheel when I need to, but I don’t feel the need to do it that often now. I feel like I can sit back and watch and see where the music goes knowing that any moment I can jump in and say something with an exclamation mark if I want to. Playing with musicians who are so strong makes it a privilege to just be an accompanist for my own music. I don’t feel like there is any given soloist at one moment—the band should be flexible and be able to change as a group.
TJG: How come you decided not to do this concert as a quintet?
SM: I feel like I want the message to be very pure, and there will be a lot of new information but less time to get to know everyone on stage intimately. When you go to a solo piano concert, you get to get to know the performer for an hour and a half. Three people is a lot to take in. You could play with a Philharmonic orchestra, which I’m not against of course, but it’s a different experience for the audience. It’s less intimate.
TJG: Will there be a theme to this music? Any particular focus in subject or sound?
SM: This project started as something and then changed into something else. I wanted to write something that spoke about the existence of white privilege, male privilege, and Israeli privilege. That was the engine for me to start writing this music. But then I decided if I wanted to make a fully realized statement that would approach these subjects it would take more time. So this theme isn’t reflected directly in this music, but there is the spirit in the writings somewhere. Mainly this Gallery show will feature music for the sake of music, but there will be a shadow of this theme.
TJG: How do you incorporate a particular theme or subject into your compositions or your playing?
SM: I usually realize that I might have to combine some other element, like multimedia or spoken word. Music is a very powerful tool, but without lyrics it’s abstract. I feel like I have a very specific point to make here, as opposed to a feel or a general mood, so I feel I may need to involve more tools. But music that is related to social subjects or related to some frustration is played with more urgency. One of the most powerful videos I’ve seen was the SF Jazz Collective playing at Yoshi’s and it was right after the Trayvon Martin killing I think. They went on stage with hoodies as a protest, and Stefon Harris took one of the most emotionally jaw-dropping solos I’ve ever heard. There was so much intention.
TJG: On your latest album, you decide to use Obama’s speech following the Sandy Hook shooting on your final track as a backdrop.
SM: Yes, and I was warned that that might make my track appear very dated in the future. Like in 15 years, if the U.S. manages to change its gun laws in some miraculous way this song won’t mean much. But I didn’t care, this is life right now.
TJG: I’ve heard you and I’ve heard Kendrick Scott sample Barack Obama.
SM: Obama is so eloquent. I know he’s a politician but this particular speech felt so authentic. I just feel a human being expressing his frustration with the situation and saying that this can’t continue. The fact that it’s Obama is an added value because everyone knows his voice.
TJG: In a previous interview, you called Jazz “home.” What do you mean by that?
SM: Jazz means “welcome” to me. “Come on in.” It’s a very open platform for you to bring your own story, from wherever you are. Jazz is Afro-American music and I’m a white man from Tel Aviv, but jazz still welcomes me. I really respect folkloric-type music that doesn’t really accept all, but jazz is just more open. For people who don’t have a clear musical home—Israel is a very new country, so we don’t necessarily have a deep history of “Israeli” music, even though you may hear influences from a lot of other countries—when I found jazz, I said, “Oh, I can bring that ‘cultural mess’ here.” You could say the same is true of New York—no one belongs but at the same time everyone belongs and I love it.
TJG: Thanks for everything, Shai. Anything else you’d like to add?
SM: Yes, the Warriors should get rid of Kevin Durant.
The Jazz Gallery presents Shai Maestro’s 2018-19 Residency Commission on Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 8, 2019. The group features Mr. Maestro on piano, Philip Dizack on trumpet, and Joel Ross on vibraphone. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.