Photo by Alexandre Lacombe

By Paul Freeman [June 2017 Interview]

For Israeli jazz pianist Shai Maestro, perfection is no longer the goal. It’s all about authenticity and meaning.

“I am tired of going on stage and performing a perfect, polished set, getting a standing ovation, getting the money and going home. I want to feel something real. If I play a very polished concert in Carnegie Hall, it might be less satisfying than playing a very real concert in some random pizzeria.”

Maestro recognizes different ways of communicating with an audience. “One is crowd-pleasing and trying to be as impressive as you can. I feel that that belongs to an earlier stage of my career. Right now what I try to do is not look at it as my concert, not to see myself as the performer and the audience as the listeners. There’s an unwritten contract of this is what should happen. We put on those roles, those hats.

“What I try to do now is to sit on stage and see the collective experience. If you’re attentive, you can really see that the energy is different in the room. The way that people listen and react is different. I don’t try to manipulate them, but just go with them and treat my piano as an instrument, but also treat myself as an instrument to express and convey something that’s bigger than me. And that belongs to everyone. It doesn’t belong to me.”

Maestro’s latest album, “The Stone Skipper,” takes him in new musical directions. He used electronics and singers, heightening the emotional impact.

“It was an attempt to break from what I had had done so far. On the orchestration level, first of all, we used electronics. And we used singers for this, which allowed me to write melodies that had more space in them, more air. Also on the musical level and the emotional level, we didn’t try to create a virtuostic album, hoping it would be impressive to listen to. We just tried to express something that has a real meaning for us.

“I personally had a very rough year. I lost my grandfather, as well as some other personal losses. So the music was an outlet for these emotions, though I didn’t consciously try to approach it that way.”

Maestro says that it’s ego that makes a musician go for the virtuostic. “Once you get in touch with the idea that your ego sometimes leads you, you can show compassion to your ego and not take it too seriously - ‘Oh, yeah, I see what you’re trying to do and we’re not going to go that road.’ Once you understand that the ego is just disturbing you, it’s much easier.”

Live performances of his compositions veer far from the recorded versions. “Every concert is completely different. I’m a huge Wayne Shorter fan and the way he approaches music really speaks to me. Yeah, you have the song, the DNA of what you want to play, But you go in places that the song is only suggesting. So it’s not about serving something that’s a finished product. It’s more about energy, intention, honesty.

Photo by Alexandre Lacombe

“That’s part of the reason the album is titled ‘The Stone Skipper.’ I love the fact, when you’re skipping stones, there are those little waves when they hit the water. That’s kind of how I think about music. There’s a lot of reactions that happen with very minimal movement. So the idea is to go on stage with no plans and see what happens.”

Maestro and the members of his trio - Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder and Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz - have developed an intuitive sense. “I have great trust in them. We have the same mindset. We love exploration and adventure. We like to challenge each other.”

Maestro relishes the trio format. “The more instruments you have, the less attentive you can be to each instrument, because you have to split your brain and your ear into more parts.”

Maestro views music as a language. “When you learn a new language you learn first of all the words, the vocabulary. Then you learn how to conjugate verbs. And then you learn how to use different tenses and how to connect phrases into sentences and into paragraphs and whole stories. Then you get to a place where you have a conversation with someone and you’re just expressing yourself. And you’re doing some crazy acrobatics, grammatically speaking. And you’re doing some really intricate things using that language. Your control over the language is so strong that you don’t have to think about it anymore. You can just be yourself. And each person expresses themselves differently.

“In music, there’s a tendency to go into this box of - the chords, the harmony, the rhythm, the melody is there. There’s a solo, blah, blah, blah. But I feel like we get stuck in the technical aspect or the conceptual aspect of music should be this or that. If you start thinking about it as a language, then you acquire this control over the language and then you can forget about it and just be yourself. And then you can end up just playing like one note over and over again for 20 minutes, but it comes from a deep understanding of the language.

“It sounds a bit New-Agey, but I mean it in a very concrete way. We are all incredibly unique universes. Each person has something that no one else in the world has, something that no one ever had or ever will have. So you want to find that core and let it breathe, let it exist. If the majority of the people would turn their efforts inwards, things would be much simpler, because we tend to look for people to blame for our lack of ability to be happy or for our situations. But a lot of times it happens because we’re not really to connected to our core.”

Maestro began to eat, sleep and breathe music at a young age. At five, growing up in Israel, he tried to recreate the sounds of the forest on the piano keyboard. At eight, he was captivated by the album “Oscar Peterson Plays The George Gershwin Songbook.” He was surprised that one song appeared twice.

“I was amazed that they didn’t sound the same. That was my discovery of the world of improvisation,” Maestro says.

There was a vibrant jazz scene in Israel. “In my generation, we had musicians we could take inspiration from, which is the most important thing. You’re not just listening to a record, you’re going to a gig and talking to them.

“Now it’s incredible. It’s like a second New York. It’s one of the best places for jazz in the world right now.”

Maestro attended Yellin High School for the Performing Arts, honing his classical and jazz skills. An award-winner, Maestro was offered a scholarship to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. The musician realized this could be an important step in his progression.

“My mother and the principal at the high school both said I should stay and finish high school. I wanted to be the young wonder kid who leaves and goes to make a name for himself. I spoke to my piano teacher and he said, ‘Why do you want to go to Berklee?’ I said, ‘Because it’s Berklee.’ He said, ‘Yes, but why?’ I had to ponder that.

“I really understood that I didn’t know why I wanted to go there. It was my ego telling me I should go. He had given me a life lesson - the ability to question things that seem obvious. I didn’t want to make music in a regimented situation, having music as homework.”

Photo by Alexandre Lacombe
Making the incredibly difficult decision to turn down Berklee worked out beautifully for Maestro. A few weeks later, he was offered a chance to collaborate and tour with famed bassist Avishai Cohen.

“That was my college,” Maestro says. ”I am a sponge. I soak up everything that’s around. I’m trying to do it less sometimes, because you can get overwhelmed, especially in our world with the endless stream of information on the internet. If you absorb everything, you can go crazy. But with Avashai, it was that. I kept my eyes and my ears and my heart open. And I learned about composition and arranging and being on the road. I took it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

After five years, Maestro left to lead his own group. “It was a hard decision, because we played everywhere, festivals, the money was great, the music was great. But it felt like I needed to work on my own. I had to force myself to not stay with I knew, to go for what I didn’t know.”

He settled in Brooklyn. Though he might be more comfortable in the sort of countryside setting he grew up in, New York provides amazing opportunities to collaborate with jazz greats.

“Moving there was my biggest musical leap. It’s an endless source of inspiration for me,” Maestro says.

And inspiration leads to composing striking works. “You have to let go and say, if it doesn’t arrive, that’s okay. If something arrives, you nurture it and you treat it without too much ambition. Every time I get ambitious, every time I try to write something beautiful, or grandiose, it doesn’t work. My best compositions just arrive, when I let them arrive. And the process is very elusive.”

Maestro, who has launched a project to get musicians, on an international basis, involved in their communities, through donations, benefits and workshops, usually arrives at exciting new music whenever he steps on stage.

“Sometimes I’m just in my own bubble and I forget about the audience. When there’s a night where you feel like you were completely honest, from the beginning to the end, that’s what I strive for. It’s almost like a two-hour meditation. You just open your eyes and go, ‘Wow, weird. Two hours have passed. I have no idea what happened.’”

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