JLife speaks to Israeli jazz pianist, Shai Maestro ahead of his performance at Leeds Jazz Festival on 20th July.
Shai Maestro was only five years old when he became aware of his talent for improvisation. But with a name like that, you could say he always had a lot to live up to.
Growing up in a small countryside village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem known as Joseph’s Vineyard, this verdant, mountainous landscape was to have a lasting impact on the young Israeli’s future sound.
“I remember being in my living room trying to imitate the sounds of the forest on my parent’s piano. The high register was the wind, the middle register was the animals and the lower register was the thunder. I didn’t know I was improvising at the time, but that was my first intuitive introduction to music. Perhaps many five-year-olds are doing this within their heads; I just happened to have a piano as my medium.”
As Shai discovered classical musical, he was soon able to reinforce his raw improvisational talent through western traditional harmony, playing the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. At the age of eight, he heard his parents play an Oscar Peterson recording of the Gershwin songbook; an experience that kindled his lifelong passion for improvisation on Jazz standards.
After winning the National Jazz Ensembles Competition in 2002 and 2003 and receiving scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Fund, Shai attended Berklee College of Music’s summer programme, where he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Boston college full-time – an offer he ultimately declined.
“The offer came when I was still in high school and a part of me wanted to drop out, travel to the US and just be that wonderkid. But my mother and my vice principal helped me understand this was a purely egocentric decision. For me, it wasn’t what I needed, so I decided to stay in Israel and do my thing.”
After declining the scholarship, life brought other opportunities to his doorstep only weeks later. Out of the blue, Shai received a phone call from renowned bassist Avishai Cohen, a fellow Israeli known for his collaboration with Jazz legend Chick Corea, inviting him to audition for his trio.
“We’d played a little session a couple of years before, but when I got the call, I was stunned. I’d been a fan of his for many years, so it was a surreal feeling as an 18 year-old to have your hero call you up and ask you to join his band.
I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I came to the rehearsal seriously overprepared. I learned virtually all of his music, not only the piano parts, but the bass, the drums, even the horns section. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t good enough at that time to play with him. But I guess he saw the potential within me and decided to give me a shot.”
Along with drummer Mark Guiliana, Shai spent the next five years touring the globe with the Avishai Cohen Trio and recorded a total of four albums before committing to forge his own path.
“It was wonderful, we were playing the big stages with the best musicians and learning a lot. But I’d been composing my own music and this nagging feeling began to creep up inside me. It was a tricky decision, but there came a point when I realised there was no choice anymore: I needed to go it alone.
“When I knew I had to start my own trio, I had to go all-in, so I quit the band, found my musicians and looked for ways to get our music out to the world. It took a bit of time and a lot of struggle, but the musicians I play with are on such a high level, musically and spiritually, I’m really happy with where we are today.”
Just a few months after forming the Shai Maestro Trio, the band recorded its well-received eponymous first album. The trio began an intense schedule of touring the world, playing up to 80 concerts a year. Eight years later and the trio is still going strong. Its most recent release on ECM, The Dream Thief came in November last year followed by a tour of 15 countries.
Shai’s music takes influences from across the spectrum to create a sound that is open to being shaped by cultural influences yet grounded in a respect for musical tradition.
“I love the Great American Songbook and take a lot of influence from Impressionists like Ravel and Debussy. The younger generation may disagree with me, but I think you have to respect heritage, learning and building on what the greats laid down before you.
“But I also enjoy modern jazz, avant-garde, funk – I’m a huge fan of James Brown. I don’t believe in boxing myself into any single genre. I believe good music is good music and my radar is always switched on to new things. After all, the combination of influences is how new music is made.”
Shai conducts the interview from his hotel room in Madrid, where he is in the process of fulfilling his dream of learning Spanish, which he hopes will help him dive deeper into the South American roots that flavour his sound.
“I’ve been here for a month-and-a-half now conjugating verbs and composing music all day long! The Spanish culture is incredibly rich. When you speak the language, you get a key to its heart that you’d never get if people had to adapt to English. I’ve been in love with Cuban music for many years and I hope to spend some time there and get inspired.”
Along with Cuban, flamenco and Arabic influences, Shai admits that roots formed in the Jewish homeland underpin his personal as much as his musical identity, the cultural traditions and cinematic landscape of his youth still pervading his work today.
“In retrospect, I’ve taken so many beautiful things from my time in Israel. I don’t strictly practice Judaism, but I celebrate the holidays and see it manifest itself in many aspects of my life, whether it’s the food I eat or the music I make.
“I think Jewish identity is seen from different angles depending on whether you live inside or outside of Israel. Being in Israel you’re a surrounded by this energy all the time, which feeds into a truly unique sense of community.”
Israel is renowned for fostering talent from Nobel Prize winners to award-winning sitcom writers and musicians, a phenomenon Shai puts down to classic Israeli chutzpah.
“Chutzpah is imperative for Jazz, because you have to break the rules all the time! The Jazz educational infrastructure in Israel is fantastic. There may not be a lot of funding, but there’s a lot of heart. We have teachers who really love the music and for me, Jazz is just an expression of love. So if you teach the students to love their craft, they will do the rest.”
Having resided in New York City for the past decade, the 32-year-old has flourished amid an influx of pioneering contemporaries including Gerald Clayton, Micah Thomas and Joe Ross. Despite being at the forefront of a generation of young musicians forging a global Jazz resurgence, Shai considers himself an old-hand, feeling compelled to use his experience to help the next generation.
“I’m pretty sad about what’s going on in the world today. Everything seems very dark and music is one of those things that generates light. The more musicians we can help realise their potential, the more we have to hold onto through these turbulent times.”
Shai admits to giving each of his students a different part of himself, as “different people need different things”, a philosophy he also applies to his shows. On 20th July, Shai will perform in Leeds for the first time with his trio as part of Leeds Jazz Festival at Leeds College of Music – but it’s not only the fans who are wondering what to expect.
“When we step on stage in Leeds, we think the best gift we can give is to be present in the room and reflect that moment together, rather than trying to impress with pre-prepared fireworks. When we perform, we never have a set list – we try to be as honest as we can in the moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen but that’s the beauty of it.
“It’s a collective experience: the audience presence in the room changes the music on a conscious and unconscious level. So if we can open up that frequency, the music will mould into something different every time. Be ready to go on an adventure with us.”