SFJAZZ.org | On the Record: Shai Maestro

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on the record:
Shai Maestro's Human

September 22, 2022 | by SFJAZZ

Shai Maestro (photo by Gabriel Baharlia)

Israeli piano virtuoso and composer Shai Maestro returns with his quartet on September 24, performing music from his latest ECM release, Human. Here’s a closer look at this exciting new album.

In its review of pianist Shai Maestro’s ECM leader debut The Dream Thief, All About Jazz spoke of “a searching lyrical atmosphere, emotional eloquence and communal virtuosity that serves the music.” All of which also applies to Human, where Maestro’s outgoing, highly communicative band with fellow Israeli Ofri Nemheya on drums and Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder becomes a quartet with the inspired addition of US trumpeter Philip Dizack. Shai’s expansive pianism and differentiated touch is well-matched by Dizack’s alert, quick-thinking approach to improvising.

“Philip’s trumpet playing sounds to me like a human voice speaking to you,” says Shai Maestro, “and adding him to the trio takes us to our next level. It’s like we found a secret gear in the car all of a sudden. It’s a whole new adventure, and I absolutely love it.”

Raised in Milwaukee, Dizack honed his skills on tours and recordings with Bobby Watson, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Eddie Palmieri, Jimmy Cobb and more. In New York, Maestro and Dizack played together as sidemen on gigs with numerous groups and gigs. “We’ve shared the stage so often, in fact, that neither of now remembers what the first occasion was. But there was always a special understanding between us on how we see music and how we see life,” says Shai. “It’s one of those relationships that it feels like it’s always been there. “

The pianist describes the trumpeter as "a keen listener who also knows how to accompany, a difficult task when you are a horn player. It requires amazing ears, compassion, and the ability to play a huge dynamic range - to be another architect in the band. Philip can scream and whisper with his trumpet. I can take the back seat for a few minutes. Jorge has another melodic instrument to take into consideration now - wood and metal, a whole new set of colors. Both Jorge and Ofri are blossoming. I feel Ofri is starting to let the music 'simmer', cooking on a small flame, and letting it grow by itself, without interfering. Everyone is more challenged, more attentive."

As ever, Maestro is taking the music forward while also respecting its sense of tradition, in a program comprised almost entirely of original pieces, which explore a broad range of temperaments and colors. “Hank and Charlie” a feature for the bandleader and bassist Jorge Roeder, pays tribute to two of Shai’s musical influences. “Hank Jones and Charlie Haden are my heroes. Their finesse, minimalism, storytelling, and sounds are breathtaking. I have been obsessed for many years with their album of spirituals and hymns, Steal Away. Though I’m not a religious person, I wrote this piece thinking about a kind of worship song, a prayer. It is my way of expressing my gratitude to two giants of this music.”

The one jazz standard on the album “In A Sentimental Mood” references the version played by its composer Duke Ellington in his 1963 collaboration with John Coltrane: “I’m obviously a huge Coltrane admirer, so this song has been with me for many years.” Shai’s new arrangement is also inspired by the expressive playing of a friend and contemporary, the vibraphonist Joel Ross. Shai says that he tried to take Ross’s sense of “notes flying around the room, embracing the sound and energy that comes your way” into account, “weaving this feeling into the melody and form of a song I love.”

Human marks Shai’s third appearance on ECM. Theo Bleckmann’s 2016 recording Elegy, with Maestro as contributing musician, came first, followed by The Dream Thief with the trio with Jorge Roeder and Ofri Nehemya, in 2018. “The music definitely involved since The Dream Thief. We are all different people now, and when music gives so much room for interpretation and improvisation the music changes with you. You grow as a human and the music grows with you. And living in New York changes you very quickly. Everyday I’ve been exposed to new people, new artists, new ways of making music. I have dived deeper into harmonic studies, into avant-garde playing, into playing drums myself and into the sometime abstract research of how to come up with a good melody. The majority of the songs came out in quick bursts of creativity. Usually at night, when it feels like the world around you is asleep and you have a rare moment where the street is quiet, the phone is off, and you can really develop something.”

Album title Human has special resonance for Maestro: “I played music for many years, trying to make it be ‘above’ life - an isolated experience where I looked for transcendence, a sort of escape from everyday life. But the more I play, the more I understand that the very act of trying to reach this state prevents it from happening. So I started accepting music-making as a part of my everyday experience. So, when working on Human, after writing each song and creating its universe I then just try to let it just be, without judgment because what I want to present is the human effort - and it’s full of opportunities, contrasts, colors, energy and life and is, finally, impossible to explain.”

Human was recorded at Studios la Buissonne in the South of France in February 2020, and produced by Manfred Eicher.

Watch the video for "In a Sentimental Mood" below:

Shai Maestro’s quartet performs in the Joe Henderson Lab, 9/24, during a week called “New Standards” devoted to some of jazz’s most exciting young artists including vocalist Sarah McKenzie, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and vocalist Fleurine. Tickets are available here.

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