A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg.

This Monday, August 21st, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome pianist Shai Maestro to our stage for two sets of solo piano. Best known for exquisite work with his trio, like on last year’s record The Stone Skipper (Sound Surveyor), and as vocal accompanist (with Theo Bleckmann among others), this solo show marks the beginning of a new avenue of exploration for Maestro. We caught up with Maestro by phone after a busy summer of touring—he had just arrived in Israel after a long summer tour through Europe. We talked about the continuing evolution of the music from The Stone Skipper, and his mental and emotional approach to playing solo; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: When did you arrive in Israel?

Shai Maestro: I arrived yesterday, I came from Belgium.

TJG: You’ve been touring since the end of June and through all of July—how has that been? You’ve been with the trio mostly?

SM: Yeah, mostly with the trio. My career these days is divided into trio, solo, and side bands and projects. So this was mainly trio, I did two gigs with the Mark Guiliana quartet, and now I’m here in Israel to play three solo shows, I have one solo show in France in a week, and then we are going to Kazakhstan and Japan—we have a bunch of stuff going on.

TJG: How has it been performing with the trio now that you last album, The Stone Skipper, has been out for a while. Do you feel like the music has evolved a lot?

SM: Oh yeah, definitely. I actually had a conversation about that recently, someone asked me if when I listen back to The Stone Skipper I feel regret, because the music has evolved so much, and if I wish the music had been different on the album, and my answer is no, because I feel like with The Stone Skipper, we managed to capture something that is honest, at least for me, and that was a representation of this moment in time. And sure, as soon as I understand that music is basically an extension of life, then the change is inevitable. We change as people, and so everything is felt in the music. So the music has developed a lot, but I see it as a beautiful thing, not as a regret.

TJG: How do you typically adapt your music from playing in the trio setting to when you’re playing in the solo piano setting?

SM: The first thing I try to do is embrace the new sonority. To embrace the fact that it’s only me and to embrace the fact that the sonic information onstage is less than half. You feel very naked all of a sudden. The idea is to not expect anything, and to have a constant dialogue with silence, first of all, and then come out from that. So each note feels like it’s full instead of feeling like I’m missing something, like I’m missing the trio. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is interaction—I have to be the ventriloquist and the dummy; I have to be the one activating and the one activated. And it’s kind of a schizophrenic reality to live in. when I’m playing trio or with other people, I’m still executing my own thoughts, but when it’s solo, I’m the only one responsible for it. It’s a really beautiful freedom, but it’s also a great challenge. And that’s something that I have to be very conscious of what does A-minor do to you as a performer, instead of playing for your bass player or playing for your drummer.

The third thing is the left hand challenge, which is something I think that all piano players neglect—the majority of piano players neglect the left hand because this register is taken by the bass player or by the drummer usually, so you can kind of hide and play things that are almost there, but not quite there. And when you’re playing solo you’re very exposed so you have to take care of it, so this has been a great gift to me to be able to work on that.

TJG: I can only imagine when you come into the space, and you have this huge block of time that you’re organizing completely by yourself, that can be really daunting. How do you organize a set of solo music, how much is planned?

SM: I never prepare a set list, not in trio context, and not in solo, because of the virtue of improvisation. So it’s impossible to know where the music is going to go. For example, a song that was written as a ballad can end up as a uptempo free chaotic whatever piece, and the next piece that I feel like playing if I want to find a contrast for example would be a ballad. You see, so a ballad after a ballad, but the nature of the songs change so much, and I’m trying to always question everything that I’ve written, and be in a way the sideman of my own gig. To approach it like I didn’t write it and I’m a person coming in from the outside and making suggestions for the composer—like how about we do this or that? There’s a lot of improvisation. So there’s no set list, and the main idea that I’m trying to follow is to go on stage as empty as I can with no ideas. I don’t want to go in with any agenda. And the idea is to be as present as I can. Sit there on stage, close my eyes, and listen to what’s going on around me. Feel the energy, feel if the audience is restless, if the audience is very concentrated, if I am concentrated, and just play that, express that through the piano. That’s more or less it.

TJG: You’ll be coming to the Jazz Gallery after performing some solo piano shows in Israel. Is there a special connection for you getting to play in your home country?

SM: Israel is a very complex place, politically and socially. There’s something about the nature of the people here, there’s something very direct about the way people are. And I noticed coming yesterday, just having a conversation with my sister. She said things in a way that was kind of like no bullshit, not trying to get around the point or sugarcoating. She was very, very direct. And coming form Europe or even the states, there’s a lot of politeness, and I’m not saying they are not polite, but they are very direct. And that kind of opens my human and artistic chakras. Kind of like, I’m here and I can just go on stage and dive in directly, without needing to set a vibe. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I feel like I can be understood before I even play one note. And that’s a really beautiful thing for me and makes it really easy. I haven’t played yet, but I’m really looking forward. I’m looking at it as a beautiful experience to come.

TJG: Do you plan on recording at all any of your solo piano?

SM: Definitely, it’s in my future plans. It will either be the next album or the one after that. I am trying to figure out what the next project is going to be. But it’s definitely becoming more and more of a significant part of my musical life. So I’m sure I’ll have to document it at some point.

TJG: I’d like to head back for a second and talk about The Stone Skipper and the trio. I saw you perform back in June at the Jazz Standard, and you had both Gretchen Parlato and Joel Ross playing on the show. I wanted to ask you about collaboration, and how you’ve been experimenting more with production and textures. That’s obviously very different when you’re coming back into a solo setting, so I’m wondering how that work has been affecting your solo compositions, and what else you might be working on out of these collaborations?

SM: Every time you play with a different person, as long as it’s an honest encounter, you get to meet the musical core or the human core of the person—it’s a whole universe of different colors and different shapes and different feelings than what I would come up with. And for me I get so nourished by the two other guys in my trio for the last six years, by Ziv [Ravitz] and Jorge [Roeder], that it’s always been enough, and it still is, I don’t need other people, but I thought it can be a really great opportunity to taste different words, taste different sentences, and different phrases, different textures as you say.

Every player has his or her own ways of approaching music. For example, if I play with a singer, with Gretchen, the essence of singers is that they can play long notes, or horn players as well, but singers can sing long notes, and piano players can’t do that because the note dies, so you have to feed it over and over again. So when I write for piano, I write melodies that are more involved just to keep that flow going, but when I write for singers I can write melodies that have way less information, and so that was a beautiful thing that happened that influenced the music on The Stone Skipper. The melodies have more sustain, they have less notes in them, then the previous albums that I’ve written. And I got into the lyrics world a little bit on the last song on the album, which is a completely new experience for me and a new source of inspiration and challenges, and a new place where I have to deal with my demons. You do this for music your whole life and then you start writing lyrics and you’re like, “Wow I have a lot of work to do, to open up, to let go of the ego, to dig into the core, the essence of what I have to say.”

TJG: With lyric writing, people are shocked with how vulnerable it leaves you.

SM: It’s incredibly difficult. I didn’t know that. You listen to songs you love, like the Beatles. With Joni Mitchell it’s different because I was always able to experience the complexity of her writing, so she’s an extreme example of a lyricist. But in most songs, I feel like, “Oh yeah they just wrote something extremely personal, but it’s very, very difficult to do, now I know.”

TJG: I’d love to hear more of your lyric work in the future. Do you sing at all? Do you incorporate your singing into piano performance?

SM: The trio started a little bit, but we sing off mic. There are a few melodies that have a hymn quality to them, so I started singing it without a microphone, just into the piano microphones, and then Jorge and Ziv both joined me. And then it became another texture that we can use. And none of us are singers, and I have too much respect for professional singers to start singing.

TJG: Is there any new music we can expect to hear on August 21st?

SM: Definitely. I have two or three new songs. I am also revisiting some compositions that I wrote very early in my life, like 16 and 17.

You have performed a bunch of times now atTthe Jazz Gallery. It’s cool seeing how your relationship with the venue has developed.

SM: The Jazz Gallery has been a home for me for the past 3 or 4 years. It’s been a major stepping stone for me and I love the team, I love the venue, and the concerts are really beautiful.

Pianist Shai Maestro plays The Jazz Gallery on Monday, August 21st, 2017. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members), $27 reserved cabaret seating ($17 for members) for each set. FREE with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.