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Shai Maestro: Music as a journey of being a human

Urszula Orczyk By

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This article was originally published in the Polish magazine JazzPRESS

Shai Maestro, talented 27-year-old pianist and a composer, has earned his spurs being a part of Avishai Cohen's band. Now he has a band of his own—Shai Maestro Trio (although he says it's not "his" band but "theirs": Shai, Jorge Roeder and Ziv Ravitz). The group has released two albums so far—in 2012 Shai Maestro Trio and in 2013 The Road to Ithaca. In this interview, taken at Enter Music Festival, Shai shared his thoughts not only about his music, but also about going through the process of becoming an authentic musician and expressing uniqueness of being a human through music. Besides, he spoke about what's important for him as a musician and as a person.

Shai, you have a significant surname—Maestro, which means—a master...

Ha, yes, in some languages. I didn't choose it.

According to critics , let me quote, you "combine mature tastefulness, humility, technical bravado, well-balance, quality, high emotional content and great command of the instrument." Sounds like a definition of mastery. Do you think you are somehow predestined to become a master in music?

Nooo (laughter). Thank you, but a journey is not to become a master. The journey is to be myself, and I think if everyone in the world would go through this process of digging deeper and deeper and bringing out who they are as people, because that's beautiful, it would be a better place. I think music is just a reflection of us as people. The music is a drop in the ocean. I am a human being, as you are, and everyone else, and if you do the work on yourself as a human being , you know, in empathy, focus and good intention trying to understand how to create beauty not only in music but in life, relationships, conversations, all those kind of things, that would reflect anything you do in life, in my case it's music. But it doesn't matter if you're a cab driver or CEO of a software company or a painter. The mastery or musical qualities are a kind of a side effect, I feel, of the bigger process which we do as human beings.

Along with having a major in jazz you also got a strong classical education. Do you feel it influences your style and attitude to composing and music you make? If so, in what way?

Yes, of course. If we zoom in to the world of music I create, all the musical influences that I have find their way to the music that I create because it's a part of me. I love Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Bartok and I love Michael Jackson also, and Skrillex, Cuban music , so all of those things find their way to my works, but what I do try is not to force it. I don't want to write music or tell to my band members —oh, let's do a flamenco section inside of this song, let's do salsa section, or something that would sound classical. It is a certain honesty to a melody that has to be kept to a song, and whatever is gravitated towards it ends up being there, but without intention.

In your music we can hear tunes of traditional Israeli music, Indian music. Do your roots, your origin influence your music? Is it important to have some cultural identity in music or is it subconscious thing in your case?

Oh yes. I think it's a combination of both. It's very important to have a musical home. Israel is a really young country. It was born in 1948 , so it's like 60 years? We have influences of Yemeni music, Moroccan, music from South America, Russia, Poland, Romania, Bosnia. My grandfather is from Bosnia, I have Polish roots, also Romanian roots, so Israel is really a salad of cultures and if you compare it to the places like Cuba, for example, where you have salsa or Spain—they have flamenco, Brazil with samba and bossa nova, we don't have that, so it's more eclectic and we find this musical home in different places. Some of them come from that cultural salad in Israel and some of them I find in jazz, an American music, which doesn't have anything to do with my childhood because I didn't grow up there.

What inspires you?

Lots of things ... It can be to see someone struggling with hard life circumstances and still overcoming them and keeping a positive state of mind. This is really inspiring for me. Or to see someone whose his/her plans change in a second and it takes a second to realize that reality is not what you want but this is what it is and all you can do is to commit to that new thing. Many different kinds of music inspire me. Also honesty and direct people. I am not a person who likes masks. I go to a woman who teaches me breathing technics and an interesting thing she told me (she works with a lot of different people from different nationalities and of different beliefs)that everyone at the base is the same—everyone is afraid to die, everyone wants to be loved , to be appreciated in the society, so once you understand that, the masks, the barriers are pointless because we are the same. I want the same as you, I want to be happy. There's no difference, so I like people that are direct and don't take their time to pretend they are good or whatever. For me it's inspiring, I want to be around such people. Music, as I said, is reflection of who you are, if you're honest or not. Someone who just wants to impress you with lines -come on... John Coltrane has done everything on saxophone before. You can't say anything new. Or Michael Brecker, Chris Potter—there's a huge history of saxophone players and if some saxophonist comes and tries to impress me—I 'm not impressed. I will be touched if I see you, you know. Who you are. And that's something that Coltrane would never be able to do, because it's not you. So that's inspiring for me. There was a pianist attending masterclass I did in Israel, he just sat down and started playing weird things on the piano but I felt him immediately, I felt his whole personality pouring out. He didn't have technical facility yet and he was still young, but he was real. And as for me, I would listen to him any day more than any musician that tries to impress. What I am starting to understand is that artists that I am really attracted to are the ones for whom art is a necessity. They need to create because it's like burning inside.

You rejected a scholarship in Berklee college of music because your inner voice told you so. Do you always follow your instincts in music and life in general? Do you always trust yourself and take sovereign decisions?

Not enough. I 'm trying, and now it's more than ever.

You were very young when you rejected that scholarship...

Yes... that was a combination of my own voice and my mother's voice (laughter). I wanted to quit school before graduation, I was something like 17 years old and I wanted to be like this prodigy child who goes to Berklee. Then my mom told me—take it easy, finish school and then you can go to Berklee. She did a great service for me by doing this, because that would push me towards the direction of being like an impressing musician, you know, and those guys disappear quickly, because they are not real and it's about ego thing.

In what way moving to New York changed your attitude towards music, creation process, what NY has given you so far?
Uh.. a lot! It can be considered in many aspects, but the aspect of ego you have to face there, in New York, is especially crucial. There are hundreds of incredible piano players or musicians that are better than me. There is such thing -we tour, we're at the venue that is like 1000s people in the audience, there is a great concert, everyone claps and it feels like ecstasy, like you do something with your life and then you go back to NY and no one cares about what you did, because everyone is doing amazing things all the time, and then if you have a gig in a restaurant or a bar and you don't play well, you get fired and they hire someone else. That's amazing to me because it puts you back on the ground, it's like—take it easy, relax, it's cool that you do what you do and it doesn't' matter if it's successful or not. You have to play real things, you have to be a real person . If you act like an arrogant person or you think you deserve more, NY pretty much hits you on the head. So what it does it puts you in a place of a student all the time. This is the place of growth, when you forget about the ego and become a student again, than the world opens for you. And this is the reason why I want to be a musician. The success is cool, it's nice to feel accepted and loved, but it's not the point. The point is those moments when you make a change to yourself or make a difference to the people who listen to you. Someone comes to me after the concert and tells me-because of your concert I started playing music. Once we played a concert at the place, something like a mental hospital and one of the instructors there after the meeting came to me and said that one of the patients told him —wow, instead of cutting yourself, you can play. This makes a difference.

What encounters have been most valuable and inspiring for you?

Great question... I'll tell about the most recent one. There's a guitarist from Africa, living in NY-Lionel Loueke. I have known his music for a long long time. His drummer is a friend of mine and he invited me to come to the party. You know, the party on a roof, everyone is drinking alcohol, some casual conversations, and then I met Lionel, we started playing and the connection was so immediate and deep, it was something like 40 minutes. Then we went to a conversation in the middle of the room and it was a deep conversation about life, values of a family inside the band (he's a Buddhist) and it really changed my life. People around us were coming, saying good bye and we were just locked into this talk. I kept thinking about it later. It really changed my perspective about many things, there was some stuff that really touched me. One of them was the value of the family in a group. I gave him my album the day before, I met him for the first time then and the first thing he told me—I heard your album and one of the things I felt most that you guys are family. I knew exactly what he meant, because he heard it. We started talking about it and it got clear to me how much this band, this trio is important to me. It's under my name but it's not "my" band, it's ours. We really became a family, we're close to each other as people—Ziv, drummer, Jorge—bassist and myself. We're neighbors in New York. And it translates into the music. It's valuable and I feel that this value is not one of the top values today in the jazz scene. I don't see that many people put that value in jazz world—to find a family, musicians who would function as a family. It means a lot, because if,for some reason,something happens—misunderstanding, other commitments-something goes wrong, you are within a family and the family will not just kick you out. The family take it and say-ok, we're just a system, we can handle that. The realization of that had a big meaning. And that family is not just a three of us, it's also our management team. It's like a ball of energy. We're just keep going even if career doesn't go the way we want and it's one of the strongest things I can imagine.

How is your music made ? You experience a sudden flash of insight or inspiration, or you just improvise, dive into the process to see what happens?

This is one of the most abstract processes out of all my processes as a musician. It's easy to speak about practicing, performing but composition is such an elusive thing, because it comes for a second-this inspiration-and you have to grab it like a fish. Every song has a different story, sometimes a song comes as complete to my head and I just need to let it out,write it down; sometimes it comes with more struggle -I have like this little idea and must develop it somehow. It's really abstract, I can't define that, but I do know that I should insist on not letting it go away. If you feel this little spark, just hold on to this as much as possible-press record on the device and start improvising or writing, but don't let it go because those moments don't come often.

To what extent the esthetic side of music is important to you?

Less and less. I used to be really obsessed with it. For a very long time I have been thinking about what defines the sonority. I spent hours... well, years! sitting at the piano, playing one note and trying to figure out why Arthur Rubinstein sounds the way he does and why I don't sound like that; how to produce one note, how to play ornaments, how to voice and everything, but right now what process is happening that I understand more and more the importance of being a human in music and expressing that. And understanding that music can contain not only the beautiful side, but can contain your ugly side—when you are angry or when you are full of ego.

Do you think it is audible in your music?

Maybe it's not so audible on the albums, because they were made earlier,but this year was really significant for us and this process has started happening now, so I think the next album will have more of that. Now hitting the piano with your elbow if you feel it -I think it's beautiful if it comes with the right intention, that's the biggest gift you can give to the audience—being yourself. If your wife or husband left you the same day and you're broken, I 'd love to hear you play it. That is what I am interested in right now. And it's a really scary process because it exposes you. You are being you on stage and if people don't like it, they don't like you, not just your art. And that's painful. So the process you have to go through is to understand that you're beautiful anyway.

Your music is beautiful, elegant, full of noble qualities. I don't see much of the ugly side. Does it mean you don't have this ugly side really?

No, I just think I focused on that direction at the beginning of my career. To make music sound elegant. Let's talk after the concert and we'll see what happens, maybe it will be elegant and beautiful and that's it, I don't know (laughter). Wayne Shorter quartet—they are my heroes now, because they just d o n 't c a r e... like Keith Jarrett...These guys just go on stage and you don't know, well, they don't know what to expect, they just go for adventure that night. And it might be—ok, they didn't find anything or it might be the best thing in your life, that they reach that deep place that you would never reach by just trying to be noble. Our road to get there is still long, because there's a lot of filters, a lot of layers that need to be peeled off on the way of getting there. I feel that something much deeper will be discovered. So I'm curious about the next album, maybe we will do a live album because it loses that sterile thing the studio gives you.

Are you a perfectionist?

Not anymore.

But you used to be?

Yes. When I went to Lionel's concert in Manhattan, he killed me, all of us, I was with Ziv and Jorge. And got to that place I haven't been for years. As a musician I quickly grasp what's going on musically on stage and I've seen relatively a lot, I heard a lot of music so usually I sit back and I get. After the show I came to him and I was excited like a kid, a little fan, couldn't find the words. He was so human on stage.

A real Buddhist ...

Yes! He's a real human lover. One of the things I hate, maybe not hate, but really don't like, is when artists tell the audience to sing together. Usually it's used like a cheap trick. People enjoy it and it's fine but sometimes it comes as a trick. He did it but there was something in his gesture, the way he did it was one of the most full of love gestures that I've seen in my life. We never join this kind of stuff as the only thing that comes to mind in such moment is: " come on... don't be so cheesy." But he was so real that we all started singing with him and it was pure magic. Seriously, incredible—Lionel Loueke. He's really amazing.

You said -" I struggled with material while recording The Road to Ithaca." Do you feel more satisfied when you have to struggle in the creative process? And—do you often have to struggle?

Yes... Of course. Wayne Shorter said that when an airplane needs to take off, it needs the resistance of the air. The resistance makes it fly. So the struggle is great. The struggle takes you forward. If you float without gravity it's nice, but it gets you nowhere, you can't really move anywhere.

What each of you three individually put into the music of Shai Maestro?

Ourselves. No words would do justice to who they are. It's like a relationship—to find someone whose presence resonates with who you are and reflects back to you to create a better good, better you. And that's the situation with the three of us. It's some kind of resonance that happens only when we play together. It's something about the personality, the fact of being egoless musicians and people. The goal is to remove all the obstacles on the way to let the music be what it wants to be, so what stands in the way is the chart—that's one obstacle, then you have the piano or instrument-that's another obstacle, then there is you with your ego—third thing. We are trying to cancel all those things on our way to music.

You said that as a band you are at the beginning of the journey, as the album title The Road to Ithaca states. And where is that Ithaca of yours?

That's the point—there's no Ithaca. It's the motion, you go somewhere and what matters is the road. The Ithaca can be anything. It can be the concert tonight, or this interview, whatever. You define. It's not one thing, for me, as an artist, it can be getting rid of the ego when you play music. There's a book "The Art of the Archery." One of the things it says that the point to become a real master of this is that you should stop thinking about the goal as the goal and yourself as the launcher of the arrow. You become the goal and the goal becomes you, you disappear. It's not a conscious process anymore. As you put it to the musical terms,a musician is going to give a good concert—what is this? This is an obstacle you put on the way, it shouldn't be a goal, the goal should be to become one with the piano or with yourself and bring that on stage and that's what comes out to the people. They forget and you forget this is a concert.

When do you feel a performance is really successful?

When you feel the truth. When you go onto the stage and you don't want to impress people. This music has a lot of improvisation and one of the essences of improvisation is constant crossroads-left, right, left right, you choose which way to go. Then—I want to go left, but Ziv and Jorge both choose right. So—what to do now? Either I pull them—"no, we're here" or I go with them. And if I go with them-and that's the crossroad—how I treat it-to be disappointed "oh I should have gone left" or " ok, I'm here and I love it." And it happens all the time. It's about how to surrender to the reality.

Do you have a motto you follow in your life? Something that gives you direction in life?

Oh, many... I'll give you three. One is about Ithaca, the poem I got from my dad, about understanding that what is important is the road itself. The second is also from my dad, from the poem. I had an encounter with an old man that was hard for me to communicate with because he was very egocentric and demanding, and needed attention and praise didn't necessary deserve. My dad gave me a poem by an Israeli poet and it said, roughly quoting, " when I get to an old age and my power has left me, be kind to me." So to be kind to older people. And the third one is the story that I read about a science teacher that came to a school and brought an empty jar.He put golf balls into the jar until he couldn't put any more and asked the students—Is this full? Yes, this is full the students answered. Then he took marbles and put them inside the jar, which filled the holes between the golf balls and asked again—Is it full now? The students again said—yes. Then the teacher took sand and put it until the jar was completely full and asked—Is it full? Students laughed and answered—Yes, it is full. Then, the teacher poured two bottles of beer inside asking—And now, full? The moral of the story is that the golf balls are the important things in life -like family, loved ones. The marbles and sand are less important and if you start with the golf balls, there's always room and time for smaller things, but if you start with the sand, you won't be able to put anything else. Then the students asked—And what about the beer? Well, there's always time for beer (laughter).

Photo credit: Xavier Chauvet

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