ISREALI JAZZ MAN ON BEING HUMAN
by Norman Warwick
Shai Maestro (left) has an admirably fearless approach to music. When he sits down at the piano, especially in an improvisational solo setting, he checks the temperature of a space and simply lets the music come to him, allowing one idea to flow into another. But he wasn’t always that free.
On a recent episode of The Checkout, Maestro remembered a difficult moment on tour, with bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Mark Guiliana, — a moment that would shape his career. In the middle of a performance, while playing his tune, the trio took an unexpected detour and he completely freaked out. That meltdown would change his thinking, and approach to music, forever. To hear Maestro tell it, what he became after this experience was more human — which is also the title of his current album, (right) which was released on January 29th by ECM.
It is as long ago as November of 2019 that Simon Rentner, presenter on WGBO was in conversation with Shai Maestro to preview the album which is now ready for public consumption. Rentner, though, recently broadcast some of that conversation and also selections from Maestro’s previous ECM album, The Dream Thief.
At the end of the show, he even put put Maestro’s fearless acumen to the test, based on an improvisational comedy “Yes, and…” exercise. The presenter threw him a random idea and challenged him to musically score it on the piano. For instance: he asked him to play the forest where he grew up near Tel Aviv. The musician passed the test with flying colours, even evoking imagery of a jet aircraft taking off.
Now aged thirty four, Shai Maestro is one of the most talented pianists of his generation and still has plenty of promise to be fulfilled. He made his public debut with his own trio in 2011 and since then has shaped a strong and unique personal identity, delivering a marvellous musical fluidity . He and his colleagues are now one of the most harmonious, and indeed the most powerful bands working in jazz yoday.
It was an important year for him when he signed to major jazz label ECM and recorded The Dream Thief (left) as his first album. Although it featured his trio it also revealed him as a perfect solo-pianist, being introspective, lyrical, vituistic and unique.
Press as influential as All About jazz identified a ´searching, lyrical atmosphere, emotional eloquence, and communal virtuosity that serves the music.´
Those who have heard it are now saying the same sort of things about Human, his latest release on ECM, on which the trio of Shai and his drummer and fellow Israeli Ofri Nehemya and Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder are transformed into a quartet by the inspired addition of US trumpeter Philip Dizack. The American´s quick thinking improvisations are the perfect complement to Maestro´s expansive piano, Nevertheless, even as Maestro pushes the boundaries of the music he and his now triangle of colleagues retain respect for the music´s traditions.
Human was recorded under the production of Manfred Eicher at Studios la Buissonne in Southern Frannce, just before the world locked down in march 2020.
Prior to recording the album Shai Maestro and his two colleagues had undertaken a pretty intense itinerary on a word tour that saw them play in eighty cities in and share stages with artists of the calibre of Chick Korea, Tigram Himasyan, Esperanza Spalding and Dianna Krall (left). They released several albums on the French label, Laborie jazz, including The Road To Ithica, uintold Stories and The Stone Kipper, and these were received with massive acclaim from well respected reviewers at Downbeat magazine, NPR, BBC, JazzFM and at The Checkout.
Maestro was elevated by these albums on to a new level of artistry through which saw him taking time, fearing less and daring more. Hw as able, more than, ever to allow his music to unfold organically. This also applied to his live work as the trio graduated to playing the most renowned venues, festivals and stagesd around the world and to his recordings with other artistes. He has played on Theo Blackman´s 2017 album Elegy and received critical acclaim for appearing on the debut album by the mark Guiliani Jazz Quartet , Family First. Ben Wendel´album High heart, which came out in 2020 on Edition Records also carried Shai´s name on its credits.
In the last year or two the pianist has reached further important milestones in his career. After signing with Sony / ATV Music Publishing he was invited to perform with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (right) on a playlist that included not only Miho Hazama´s first piano concerto but also original music of Shai Maestro. It was all conducted by Keitaro Harada at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre.
Of the new album, Human, Chris May at All About Jazz says
ECM is widely seen as the exclusive preserve of austere, overly cerebral music, a perception that begins with the lingering legacy of its global cross-genre smash hit, saxophonist Jan Garbarek‘s Officium in 1993, but which has also been formed by plenty of other chilly and stand off-ish outings. (You can find Steve Cooke´s excellent article about Jan Garbarek, The Perfect Setting, in our music archives for December 2020). Just tap in that heading. A significant minority of the label’s catalogue, however, is comprised of quietly expansive and emotionally intelligent music. The label ended 2020, for instance, with singer Elina Duni and guitarist Rob Luft‘s by turns heart-warming and heart-breaking Songs Of Love And Exile, a masterpiece of simultaneously soulful and thinking music.
Human is another fine addition to the Romantic strand of the ECM’s catalogue. It is an intensely humanistic and societal affair, as track titles such as Compassionor Prayer and They Went To War suggest. Three individuals are also spotlighted: Hank And Charlie pays tribute to the musical empathy shared by the late pianist Hank Jones and bassist Charlie Haden, and closing track Ima is dedicated to Talma Maestro. Wife? Sister? Mother? Someone, anyway, clearly loved. An ambiance of beatific calm suffuses the album with the exception, midway, of The Thief’s Dream. This thief clearly does not sleep easily at night.´
All this must be extremely meaningful to a man who feels so deeply about his art.
´The tremendous history of jazz is a great inspiration but also a great challenge,´ Maestro says on his web site. ´We each have our own individual gift, which is the choices we make – whether we turn to major or minor, whether we play pianissimo or fortissimo at a key moment. I always try to remember to embrace history while not trying to be anything or anyone else – to let the music come out of me.´
Meanwhile, here at Sidetracks & Detours, this article is really the epitome of what we are trying to achieve by taking our Joined Up Jazz Journalists approach. From Steve´s trip to Tel Aviv, he drew a jazz landscape and made a jazz poetry recording, both of which we reported on here. Subsequently I have followed feedpost and ´discovered´ (albeit much later than the rest of the world) the Israeli human that is jazz pianist Shai Maestro.
Now, if Steve plays a track off Human on his show and Gary can find out for us whether or not Shai has ever visited that club Steve visited in Tel Aviv, then we will have brought this piece of joined up jazz full circle.
Meanwhile this article was created by Norman Warwick, who acknowledges his sources as including recommendation and comment from Simon Renter at the The Checkout, after Norm had followed directions from feedpost. Your search engines will easily locate these plarforms.
Norman Warwick is a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and is owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours. He is also a founder member of the Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ) with Steve Bewick, writer, poet and radio presenter of Hot Biscuits weekly jazz programme, Gary Heywood-Everett, jazz writer and local historian and Susana Fondon, contributor and reporter at Lanzarote Information. The purpose of forming JUJJ is to share a love of jazz music at the same time as growing our knowledge of the genre.
So, to hear a wide range of jazz music, interviews and opinions, just settle down with a cup of coffee and enjoy Hot Biscuits presented by Steve and Gary at www.fc-radio.co.uk
Remember that you can also find articles from Norman and Susana by subscribing to the newsletter produced by Lanzarote Information.
Of course, You will find plenty of good reading from all four journalists in the music section of the massive archives of Sidetracks & Detours at
and keep up to date with our daily blog.