I’ve met Shai Maestro right after soundcheck, at LantarenVenster Rotterdam, where he was performing later that night together with his trio – Jorge Roeder on double bass, and Ziv Ravitz on drums. The concert was organised by Jazz International Rotterdam. After we made ourselves comfortable in the concert hall, the sound engineer started playing some old jazz records, and so, we started the conversation with a warm welcome to the Netherlands:
S.M. I love it! It’s very welcoming, always, and very…exciting (laughs)! The audience here is wonderful, for us at least. I feel they are reacting to things that I see as the deeper things in our music. They react with the things that resonate with us, so, I’m happy, that makes us play better.
R. What can you tell me about your project, the Shai Maestro Trio?
S.M. Where do I start? (we laugh). We are all from Brooklyn, New York – originally, I am from Israel – and we’ve been together for three years now. It all began with a session in Brooklyn, that Jorge (the bass player) organised for us. I think that particular connection that we felt then at the session is what stayed present until now. We started as a collective – we went into the studio, each one contributed like 200 dollars, and we started recording. Then we talked about the fact that someone had to take this trio under his wing, and so, it became my trio. It all happened by chance! After that, we had the privilege of touring quite intensely for the past few years. The band has gone through a significant change, musically. We started with more arranged music, and gradually, as we played, I feel that the trust between the three of us has improved and became really strong musically, and on the human level. That sensation of trust is what allows you, or me, us, to let go and not prepare things that much – to really be more open to the moment. Especially in the last two, or three tours, it became really extreme for us, because we kind of let go of what we think music should be, and we started questioning everything. If the arrangement is this (and he knocks the armchair), we say, but why? On stage maybe is not like that! So we start messing with it, and sometimes we do not play the arrangement after all.
R. So, everything is open to the moment?
S.M. It’s very open, but grounded, based on a language that we created. Not like a crazy language that no one understands, but just our way of communicating with each other. The fact that this language is there, then even when we open up things is not complete chaos, even when it’s, or if it’s chaos, it’s not chaos – if that makes sense! The exploration of the unknown is endless you know…
R. What can you tell me about the musical influences that can be found in your compositions?
S.M. I think everything that I’ve heard in my life is inside my music. I grew up in Israel, but in our house you could listen to classical music, flamenco, and many, many different kinds of music. So, I guess everything went into my musical DNA. What I try to do now, is to not be able to categorise the music, say, this is classical music, or this is that. I don’t want that! I want stuff to come out naturally. So, you know, music has its way of telling you what it needs. Everything is inside!
R. I know you studied both jazz and classical, at the same time. How did that work out for you?
S.M. It can be very challenging! If you look at being a classical piano player, that means a lot – hours of practicing, learning the repertoire which is huge, getting your technique to be as it should. Even though I didn’t go that road, I still play classical music.
R. Do you feel that both classical and jazz have equal influences on your music?
S.M. It’s definitely there! I listen and I play a lot of classical music, I don’t know in which percentage, but it’s definitely there among other things. Cuban music is a huge influence on me, flamenco… I even had a rock band (he laughs), so that’s there also. I played saxophone in a techno group when I was twelve (laughs). Everything is inside!
R. Creating a link to your literature studies, how does it relate to your music?
S.M. I really see everything as part of everything! Literature is art – people creating beauty with words. If you read Dostoyevsky, there’s a beautiful composition… In music, it’s about telling a story. It all connects to who we are as human beings, and our natural development, the way we see the world, and we experience challenges… It’s like literature! These are big words but, if you zoom out, even if it might sound like a cliché, everything is everything!
R. Talking about composition, do you have a certain ritual?
S.M. Lately, I’ve been trying not to try! (he laughs). What I want right now is for things to come natural. I started trusting myself more, that I have music in me which will come out. Whenever it’s ready, it will come out. Usually that happens when I’m tired, because the filters are kind of down as you are in this „Twilight Zone”. Just yesterday night I wrote something! The compositions right now are shorter, and less detailed than before, and a lot of it has to do with my trust in them (band members), their trust in me, and my curiosity to see, wow, what are they going to do with it?! Instead of telling them, you are going to play this here, and this here, I just say, here are 8 bars, let’s just play! As a journey, it’s more human than musical.
R. When you think of a composition, what is the approach?
S.M. The concept is pretty simple: if you’re able to play the song on guitar and sing the melody, like around the fire, and it works, then the song will work. But if it doesn’t work like this, if you arrange it, add violins, and a choir, and add all these layers – it’s just cosmetics. That’s not going to work! You have to go back to the origin of things – guitar, voice, etc. So, that obviously is made up most of the times from melody – a nice melody before harmony, but simple, the bear essential. Music doesn’t lie! That’s the biggest gift of music for me – it’s a mirror which tells you that didn’t come from the right place. Also relevant when the music that comes out is very cerebral. It’s pretty cruel in that sense, as it tells you, no, you have to do it the right way (laughs)!
R. How important is it for you as a musician to listen to yourself?
S.M. In many ways it is very important, because you can learn about what you’re doing wrong. I would say the most important one in my opinion is to learn to accept yourself. That’s the thing I’m discovering about music now, that it can contain beauty… Of course we are all trying to create beautiful stuff, but, if you take a different road and bring a picture of you, of your beautiful sides, and your ugly sides: if you’re angry, it’s ok – the music can take it; if you hate someone – the music can take it; if you love someone – the music can take it… Music creates this interior bubbling thing, and you just have to get it out! You’re not worrying about aesthetics, you just want to shout your guts out! That’s the beautiful thing of music. If I feel like hitting the piano with my elbows, or punch it – it’s legitimate, who says I can’t? That’s why I love this music, improvisation, trying to express more real things!
R. Talking about real things, what do you think of music nowadays? I have the feeling that it tends to become a bit shallow… Some forced compositions, new works brought in only for market exposure…
S.M. Yes, it becomes mechanical! It’s a hard thing to express something deep, but if you get into the right mindset, the connection with Earth, the way you are in the world, your role…then sources are everywhere. But, I feel people don’t go there, because you know the world, especially in the Western societies, things tend to go so fast – you have your Iphone, Ipad, Facebook, and e-mail…
R. Then we come back to the shallowness of things – it can reflect so much in music!
S.M. Definitely, I agree! But then, there are people who do it, who live a great life, who are as fortunate as we are and manage to express something that is deep… You don’t need the wars to create it! I think it’s the wrong way of looking at it. If you are in a situation like this, it does create a lot of emotions that can be expressed into music, but, there is also enough between your relationship with your mom, and your relationship with… (we laugh). There’s enough to write about! You know what I mean?!
R. Talking about emotions, and battles, what can you tell me about the name of your album, “Road to Ithaca”?
S.M. It comes from Homer’s Odyssey: there was Odysseus who lived in Ithaca, and got „deported” by the gods, or kicked out (laughs). After many battles, it took Ulysses ten years to return to Ithaca. When he eventually returned, his wife did not recognise him at first. It was only after a bow shooting competition in which no one else but Ulysses could shut his old bow. That would be the frame story, but, there is a Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, who wrote this poem for Odysseus telling that what’s important is the journey, and not Ithaca. I got this poem as a gift from my dad, a day before I left for my first tour. I was nineteen years old, very excited, and scared… and then this great man just gave me this piece of paper that kind of changed my life by telling me, you know, everything’s cool, don’t worry! It’s about the journey, so don’t forget to enjoy it also, to inhale, and embrace everything that you experience.
If you zoom into music for example, wanting something is an obstacle, because you’re too busy wanting to get somewhere, like wanting the drummer to play more behind so the solo will explode, and everyone would clap. If you start wanting that, then you’re not into the moment and what’s happening now – and what’s happening now is a lot!!! Man, we’re sitting here, we’re playing music that we like, people are listening! It’s crazy! And it’s easy to forget – you do a tour of thirty concerts, and then you’re like, oh, another gig tonight, yeah, I want to go home! What do you mean, you want to go home?! It’s amazing, it’s freaking incredible! So, the fact that I called the album Ithaca keeps reminding me of this, time after time. I see the name, people ask me about it, and every time I see it from a different angle, and I get deeper, and deeper into the meaning behind it. So, it was a gift for myself in a way (he smiles), to be surrounded by this name all the time.
R. Ulysses had so many battles during his travel. Do you relate to that? Who is your Poseidon, and your Cyclops?
S.M. Yes, exactly! That is what he says in the poem, wish for your journey to be a long one, to meet angry Poseidon, the Cyclops, and the sirens, because that’s your story! I really see the equivalent in life – you’re struggling, you battle with things, and each one of us is carrying a huge bag of stones. But, once you learn to dance with it, then it creates beauty, and sparks.
R. What were your biggest battles in music?
S.M. …to accept myself! It comes out of music, to the personal level. But, I think that is among one of the things that all of us share in common. It is really hard for us to look really, really deep inside and say, I love it, I’m good! Not in an arrogant sense, but like, I’m good, and you’re good, you’re great, and he’s great… Maybe it’s a little naive, but, I think everyone is born that way, with his beauty, and then the circumstances of life put people off their track. I think deep inside we’re just learning how to say, I deserve to play my music! It’s hard! The natural tendency is to say, no, I don’t deserve anything, I’m not good, I’m copying this guy, or my technique is not there, or my solos suck, and the songs that I write are… No, it’s great! Everyone has something that no one else in the world has. Your gift to the world is unique, is amazing! So learning how to see that on myself was really, really hard, and I’m still working on it! But it’s getting better, and it just allows the flow, it allows this entire circle that goes on in my life – touring, composing, thinking of new ideas, meeting friends, staying open, creating friendships… It’s allowing that, and not stopping it anymore, as it used to stop it before. So, that’s my biggest challenge! Great question!
R. That is something all of us should work on…
Talking about battles in music, there is quite some competition out there. Does the pressure coming from other musicians influences you in any way?
S.M. Funny enough, I feel that in Europe is better in a way, not the competition, but just the effect it has on me, compared to living in New York, and going to play at Smalls where everyone comes to hang out. You play, and then Kurt Rosenwinkel, or Brad Mehldau walks in, and then you have to play! These are the times when I feel the battle of “don’t let it disturb you”. However, the paradox is that I play my best when I’m not worried. With the trio for example, we play lots of colours, sonorities, and we experiment a lot with sound. Then, we get to New York, and everything becomes like New York jazz, modern jazz, group interaction in that New York sense, and the more I think about it, the more I understand how stupid it is, because, so what if they’re musicians? So what if they’ve heard stuff?! The most beautiful thing that we can bring is who we are. For saxophone players, come on, Coltrane did everything before, and if Coltrane wasn’t enough, then there’s Mark Turner, and Chris Potter… What can you say that they didn’t say already about a C Major chord?! Not much! You can find little stuff, but, what you can do, is bring yourself! I read an interview with Wayne Shorter, talking about how he went to meet Miles at one of his last concerts: when Miles saw Wayne at the back stage, he kicked everyone out, he looked at Wayne and told him, „be more exposed, you need to be more exposed”! That’s just crazy, for Wayne you know?! And a second thing that I don’t know if it was at that time or another one, but he said, „we need more colours in Jazz”. Then Wayne said in another interview, “sometimes I get tired of playing music that sounds like music!” That for me is fantastic, and that’s basically the door opening for us as a trio – you just got to do whatever comes, and if it’s just colours, it’s fine! So, that’s the challenge! It’s a challenging thing to let go of it when musicians are in the audience, but, we think about it less and less and it’s getting better. Chick (Corea) came to our gig somewhere and just sat and listened, and then he was completely supportive – he came after the gig and was like, great man, great music, I love the compositions. I was so surprised.That’s incredible of them, you’re Chick Corea…What?! You know?!
R. In an interview, the Romanian drummer, Eugen Gondi, recalls being asked by an older musician if he had a girlfriend. Answering yes, he was then asked if he loved her, and his answer was again, yes. The older musician then said to Gondi: jazz should be your only love… This brings me back to the legend of Ithaca – it contains as well some romanticism, surrounding Ulysses’ imprisoning by the nymph Calypso, who felt madly in love with him. What would be your romantic relation with music?
S.M. I printed a sentence when I was a kid and put it above my piano. I think it belongs to Michelangelo – „The art is the most jealous of them all, it takes the person in entirety, it wants everything”. There was a time in my life when I was focused only on music. I barely went out to eat something, and then just playing, playing all the time. I drove my parents crazy. Today, I see it differently. However, because of that time I’m able to say what I’m saying now, because of that fanatic ten hours a day practice routine that I had for two years. Today, I see music as part of who I am, just a drop in the ocean. The picture is bigger than me as a musician, the picture is bigger than Michael Jordan as a basketball player, and he was the player of all times, but he’s a person first. So, music especially, expresses who you are as a human being, and, I feel that my biggest leap in level in comparison to what I was before, happened when I stopped being fanatic about music, and I start opening my eyes to other things.
R. Considering your last thoughts, if you were to give an advice to other musicians, what would it be?
S.M. I would say, do what you feel! Because, who can give you an advice? Who knows what you want better than yourself? From my own experience, I discovered that the times I wasted in my life, were the times when I followed advices from people who wanted to help me. I think the best teacher, the best advice one can give, is to listen to yourself really, really carefully, and, if you feel like practicing ten hours a day – go for it! But, if you’re just interested with basketball, girls, and cinema – do that! It’s fine! Practice, for me at least, is the practice of you being real, authentic. So, this is an advice: advices are tricky!
R. We could also refer here to the challenges in education, such as being confronted more and more often with the expression, “school kills creativity”!
S.M. Exactly! It’s a really tricky thing! I see the value in educators establishing certain rules. For example one of the best things I got from school is discipline. Today I am very disciplined in the way I run the band, for example. It’s not just going on a plane, landing, and playing. It’s much more than that – from composing to setting up the recording date, and taking care of musicians’ salaries, etc. Everything needs to have discipline. So, this is one thing that I got from that time, of learning how to develop my stamina. That’s important! But on the other side, I could completely agree with you! Sometimes is too much in putting certain boundaries to a kid, so that’s why I think that one of the most underrated professions in the world is the educators’ one. It’s so crazy teaching kids, a crazy responsibility with a really thin line between teaching them the discipline, but keeping them free, seeing what turns them on, what turns them off… It’s a huge responsibility! When you get like 35 kids in a class, and everyone is shouting, and you’re talking about chemistry… It’s so unrelated, like everything is backwards – and then you end up hating chemistry, when it is actually very beautiful. I hated chemistry! A good educator is rare to find, someone who has both hands, who creates that balance between freedom and structure. If you have one person that knows how to connect you to music, and nurture you as a person while having meaningful conversations with you – like a music lesson in which you talk about fear. Fear is one of the biggest factors in life, in general, but in music, a lot of what you play comes from fear. Everything, as your ego, how you want to present yourself to the world, who do you see yourself as, there is a lot of fear there. I wish I had a teacher who talked to me about fear when I was sixteen, who would give it the legitimacy, and create a place where it’s ok, human – let’s see how we deal with it! I had to discover it in other ways – I read books, talked with friends, I had many conversations about how much of what I do comes from fear, and how much doesn’t, and then you’re actually starting to get it.
R. Talking about schools, you’ve turned down Berkley’s offer to study there. Looking back on that, how do you feel about it?
S.M. For me it was the right decision. I didn’t see myself fitting in a school anymore, because I was so obsessed with practicing like crazy, and I just needed to be left alone. Let me live in my basement with my piano, and I’ll get back to you in a few years (we laugh)! The mission was very clear to me – I was like, oh shit, I can’t play straight, I can’t do this Oscar Peterson, this Art Tatum thing… I felt that having to be at Berkley would also mean to learn about American History for example – which is important – and then do this, and combine the degree with other stuff, and then it becomes homework – music becomes homework! Again, it’s good because you get the frame, you get the discipline, but at the same time I was at a place where I just loved it (music), and I didn’t want to spoil it by having someone telling me what to do, and then start hating it. So, I didn’t go, and I’m at peace with this decision! Also, it doesn’t matter because it happened already (we laugh)!
R. What can you tell me about your experience with Avishai Cohen’s group?
S.M. Being with Avishai for five years has been a time of opening my eyes, my ears, my heart, and just take it in, take it in! Whatever happened – the good things, the bad things, the way to run a sound check, how to compose, how to run a rehearsal, how to deal with a band member when he’s late, what happens when you miss a flight, what happens when you have a great gig, when you get a good review, or a bad review, all those things. It was amazing for me to open my eyes and see what’s going on. Just learn, all the time! That was the best school I could have hoped for, and I am very grateful for that period.
R. Making the connection to your music, would you say that it was a Shai Maestro before, and after, Avishai? In terms of the influences on your music, and the direction you grew in…
S.M. I was way stronger when I left his band! I think first of all because of the physical age – I finished playing with him when I was twenty-four, and I joined him when I was nineteen. That’s a very significant time in an artist’s life. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t join the band! I feel that playing with him really put me in a situation where, this is the actual thing! I’ve been practicing and working all my life, and it all comes to a point of you standing on a stage, and playing with a musician of his level. The same goes for Mark Guiliana – playing with them as a trio put everything in context for me. And context is very, very important! Sometimes I feel I was a bit lost before, until I locked into this mission. Everything was like, I want to be able to play that Art Tatum thing. But then, I was like, but why, when you don’t really know other things! And then you have Avishai’s gig and you’re like, oh shit, I gotta get my technique better because there’s a very fast song that we have to play, and I have to feel comfortable with off beats… All those things gave me context, and context is really important, I fell. That’s what launched me!
R. I am looking at the piano (the concert hall), and I was remembering that few months ago Tigran Hamasyan played here, on the same stage.
S.M Oh, Tigran was here? Cool! With the trio?
R. No, with his quintet! It’s quite interesting that you are both the same age (laughs), he’s from Armenia, you are from Israel… Knowing the two countries’ history, I wonder how it reflects on the musical culture of each of them, and if there are any similarities in terms of influences.
S.M. I don’t know Armenian traditional music that well to tell you, but, what I do know is that when I hear Tigran, I relate to it. I don’t know about Armenia, but Israel is a country of immigrants. My grandmother was born in Bucharest, then she moved to Bulgaria for few years, then she came to Israel. My grandfather is from Bosnia, and my other grandfather is from Poland. So, it’s like a really big salad of cultures. But that is Israel! Israel is a young country – a lot of Romanians, Greeks, Turkish, Moroccans, you name it! Even South Americans! So, all Israeli traditional music is a mess, because there is not one style – you have traditional Israeli Yemenite music, then you have the Brazilian-Jewish (laughs)! I am sure it also touches Armenia at some point.
R. Have you considered a project with Tigran?
S.M. Yeah, we spoke about trying to play two pianos in New York, but we are never there at the same time (he laughs). I would love it, I love his music! We are all friends – we’re good friends with him and his band. The drummer that plays with him now was in a funk band that I was in, and he is the one who mastered my first album; and the bass player played somewhere, so everything’s really mixed. I am sure the time with Tigran will come. I love him, and I really appreciate his modesty. He is very humble, and I really respect that, because there are many people who are not as nearly as talented or accomplished as he is, and their ego is so high. Who cares man?! Just be a person! Tigran is like that, he is doing amazing stuff, and staying humble. I have lots of respect for that!
R. What are your feelings in regard to the jazz scenes of the two continents, USA and Europe? Do you feel a difference in audiences?
S.M. On a very general level, I would say that European audiences are hungrier for jazz music – maybe because jazz is an American music, and New York is a never-ending jazz festival. Here, I read the programme of the North Sea Jazz Festival, or Montreal, and I see all these names that I can just hear home, in New York. It’s all this music all the time, and I feel that the audience gets overwhelmed – you hear Aaron Parks playing at the Jazz Standard, then Tigran is playing somewhere else, then you have Anat Cohen playing there, and then you come to our concert, and then you are full, in a way…
R. But each one of you brings something different…
S.M. Yes, but I know myself after a night of checking out music in New York. I am like, oh, just quietness! I love Keith Jarrett, but no thank you now, I just need silence! I don’t think is that extreme all the time, but there is this essence, people have this rougher way of listening, which I love because it pushes you more sometimes. But with the European audience, I feel is much easier for me to connect on the human level. I feel that there is slightly more open-mindedness for that. But both are great!
R. What are you listening to these days?
S.M. I just bought The Bad Plus’ „Rite of Spring” – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – they did it in trio. I didn’t listen to it yet, I just bought it! I’m listening to Beethoven’s symphonies lately, Cuban music. Cuban music is always there. I play congas also! There is a beautiful record of Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd, duet – fantastic! So yeah, there are few things!
Feeling this was the end of the interview, we both looked at the recorder which was showing we were talking for more than one hour, and we were both happily amazed:
S.M. Wow, we’re talking for one hour?! Amazing! I just hope the American audience will not be angry for me talking bad stuff about them (we laugh)!
Interview and photos by Raluca Baicu