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Shalosh: Onwards and Upwards Indeed

Shalosh: Onwards and Upwards Indeed
Phillip Woolever By

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We would play dive bars, Polish Goth metal clubs and big jazz festivals, all in the same tour. So, a huge part of the way we shaped our sound and vibe was on the road. —Matan Assayag
Shalosh is the Hebrew word for "three," and also a powerhouse piano trio from Jerusalem with a dynamic rhythm section featuring drummer Matan Assayag and bassist David Michaeli with Gadi Stern on the keys. The group formed in 2014 when Stern and Assayag, who've known each other since childhood, joined with Michaeli for the trio's debut record. Their emphasis on co-leadership has been evident since the beginning.

These days they are enjoying a significant surge in recognition and marketability as their fourth album Onwards and Upwards (ACT, 2019) and engaging performances gain new fans through very positive reviews across the Eurozone and beyond. All About Jazz recently caught up with them for some perspective on current events, personal insights and the band's creative process.

All About Jazz: What's the jazz scene like in Israel these days?

Gadi Stern: The sound of a scene is a mixture of a few different elements. Jazz is a rich tradition of black American music, and in that sense its roots are not in the Israeli scene, but more like a tree that has its seeds all around the globe. We all pick up these African flowers and embrace them to our own sound. There are also geographical influences to the Israeli scene that make it unique. The proximity to north Africa that comes in the music's rhythm, the rich and beautiful Arabic culture, which for sure gets into the music. You also have the language element, Hebrew, which has a certain rhythm to it, which I am sure influences the music. Lastly, there is the nomadic element of the nation's history, where every individual has his or her own background of culture and music, which creates something very eclectic in the sound. All of these elements combine to the general sound the scene has.

After spending seven years in New York, I came back to Tel Aviv with a very different perspective. There is something about New York that's so vast and intense, any scene you might get into afterward will seem small and homey. I was also lucky enough to experience the scenes in Havana, Montreal and Berlin for short time frames. The more perspective I have the more I see music as this one big global village. All musicians are in some ways brothers and sisters.

Matan Assayag: When we came around on the scene, we were real "Jerusalem cats" so we had our own little bubble, separated from the Tel Aviv "big scene" bubble. This DNA stayed with us till this day. While we all take active part in many other projects with other musicians, we have our own small family like circle.

AAJ: Did the band have any specific plan since forming in 2014?

GS: Oh yeah. Actually, a couple of months ago I found a piece of paper written in late 2013, where I describe the entire plan we had for SHALOSH. It's crazy, we set down when we founded the band and basically made a plan for the next five years. Things kind of turned out even better than what we planned. One thing we couldn't plan was creative output. Writing songs is a natural process and something you don't want to rush. Since we've been meeting twice a week to play since the beginning, we had the chance to work on a lot of music, more than forty songs I think. We released four albums, including the new one, and already have materials for the fifth album. I think that's what we are the happiest about, that's probably the most important thing for us.

AAJ: What are some of the biggest changes the band has experienced since recording the first album?

MA: The most significant change was the fact that the band's original bassist, Daniel (Benhorin), who was with us for two years, left the band. This is a big part of the new album's title. When Daniel left, me and Gadi were not sure how we would continue, whether we'd be able to find a third angle to our triangle. The minute David came into the rehearsal space, everything just clicked. We were really lucky to find David, within three or four months we were already working as a real band, with a complete and strong partnership. David brings his own sound, and his compositions change the sound we had. Another big thing was just growing up, musically and personally. We were real "kids" when we recorded the first album. Our naivety had a lot of magic and energy to it, but after five years of touring, learning and growing as musicians and a band, I think we have something much more complete and ripe in our sound.

AAJ: What about more recent changes you've experienced in the past year or so?

David Machaeli: On a personal level, it has been a meaningful year for all three of us, with weddings, love and new beginnings. This also affects the vibe in the band, of course. The new album is our first with ACT music. This signing is huge for us, and we couldn't wish for a better or more suitable label than ACT. This also changes a lot in the band's status as far as gigs and exposure. For the past year we've been experimenting with some new sounds in live concerts, working closely with our sound engineer Arik Finkelberg, and some very cool effects on the piano. Come hear us live!

AAJ: As you gain recognition, does it affect your approach to playing or touring?

GS: Good question. As far as playing, gigs are a dynamic process, the music is like a living organism, it doesn't care what your status is or where you play. It has its own life. For us the main thing is to play together and have the feeling of playing in the same room. So it doesn't really matter if we play a small club or a big festival, as long as the music is happening. Since we are fully immersed in the work, composing new music and rehearsing, things feel exactly the same from inside. We try to focus on just making the best music we can make. Regarding touring, tours have definitely become better in the past year or two. Better gigs, better hotels (smiles). We are probably less keen on driving in a van for nine hours a day to play in dive bars (another smile). That being said, we are still pretty much down to play every day if we can.

AAJ: You tour a lot, please describe any good or bad things you've experienced or learned on the road.

MA: Wow, that's a perfect question for us. This band used to tour like a rock band, we would rent a van and play anywhere that would have us. Our longest run was 60 days, 42 gigs, 10 countries and 20,000 kilometers driven, and of course we would do all the driving. We would play dive bars, Polish Goth metal clubs and big jazz festivals, all in the same tour. So, a huge part of the way we shaped our sound and vibe was on the road. A lot of the songs were composed on the road or shaped from gig to gig.

There are a lot of funny stories from the road, we had one incident where we got locked outside of an apartment we were supposed to sleep in, at a commune in Belgium I think, and we had to sleep in the van, all three of us. That was quite a night. Last year, we did four shows in three and a half days, with no sleep between one gig in Ukraine and another in Russia. That was intense. In general, a huge part of this band's agenda is our friendship, and we use the time on the road to do things together, go to parks, parties or museums. We also love jogging together, without our sound engineer Arik, this guy can't run for his life (another smile).

AAJ: Did you guys ever consider or experiment with a different group format? Why does a trio work best ?

DM: We never planned on being a trio specifically, it just so happened that we were friends who wanted to play together, and we played piano, bass and drums. That being said, there's something about the trio format that allows each musician to really express themself. There is a rich tradition in the piano trio format, and we were inspired by it as we were coming up. Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, The Bad Plus and many more. It is a lineage of piano trios that carries jazz and harmony history. At the same time, we always try to get out of our comfort zone and collaborate with other artists. We have a video project called SHALOSH plus ONE, where we collaborate with other artists from different genres. We love working with musicians from the hip-hop, indie, electronic and even metal worlds.

AAJ: Describe the band's composing process, is there a regular formula or do things change from song to song?

MA: Every song has a different process, some songs are brought to the rehearsal almost finished, and together we find the songs heart' within one or two rehearsals. Other songs can take up to eight or nine months to work on. Some songs are brought to rehearsal and then get completely restructured and even re -composed. I remember one song that was brought in that we worked on for almost a year. By the time we finished it, the only thing left from the original composition was the first chord! Sometimes we jam and improvise, and start a song that way. We never have lead sheet for the music, everything is being taught by ear, that way the music is internalized better.

AAJ: After playing at Jazzahead! in 2016, you got further exposure offstage this year doing public relations appearances there. How did things go?

DM: Jazzahead! was fun and challenging. We are going through some changes now with the band's level of public awareness and it was good to see all of the who's who of the jazz industry and get some feedback. Ever since we started we were completely indie, we managed ourselves and each of us worked as a manager as well as a musician. Now with ACT records and our agency Handshake booking on board, things are a little less indie, and that's an interesting shift. We're still very involved, but have more experienced people to guide us. It's great. It's probably interesting to work with us, because we are so used to deciding everything on our own, from poster design, video editing and mixing to booking and distributing the music. So the process of starting to work with people outside the band is a good one, allowing us to focus on what's important. The music.

AAJ: In closing, anything else you'd like to add?

GS: A few words regarding the new album. We recorded Onwards and Upwards in Sweden at Nilento Studio. This was a truly remarkable experience, spending three days in the woods, surrounded by silence, gave us a chance to dig deep into the music. We were working on the music on the road for a while, trying new ideas every night, so we came to the studio really prepared. We recorded all of the songs live, with no editing, only complete takes, no mesh-ups, and we are very happy about the result. We try and tell a story, starting with After The War, describing the idiocy of war from an observant perspective, and finish with an optimistic statement, Onwards and Upwards, a prayer for peace and harmony.
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