Interviews

Interview: A process of letting go — Shai Maestro discusses The Dream Thief, his creative evolution, working with Manfred Eicher and the importance of honesty in art

Shortly after declining a scholarship from Berklee College of Music in order to finish high school in his native Israel, pianist Shai Maestro rose to prominence as a member of Avishai Cohen’s trio. He spent five years touring the world with the renowned double bassist, appearing on four of Cohen’s critically acclaimed albums.

In 2010, he went on to form his own band alongside Jorge Roeder (bass) and Ziv Ravitz (drums). With the newly-formed trio, Shai began an intense touring schedule of up to 80 concerts a year, establishing himself as one of the most consistently captivating pianists on the jazz scene today. His compositions, as well as his outlook on music and life, reveal an artist of remarkable depth, honesty and integrity. 

With Ofri Nehemya replacing Ziv, the band’s fifth album, The Dream Thief (2018), marked their debut for producer Manfred Eicher’s esteemed ECM label.

I caught up with Shai a couple of weeks ago, after his trip to Japan, where he performed with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. In this in-depth interview, we talked about The Dream Thief, his creative process, his collaboration with Manfred Eicher and the importance of honesty in art. 

You’ve just returned from a trip to Japan. How did it go?

I just got back yesterday. It was great, man. We played with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, which was my first time playing a concerto —  like a full-on, three-movement concerto. It was a great, super-positive experience. We played in a big hall for about 3000 people. To be on stage with a hundred musicians is a wonderful feeling. It went well. I’m happy to continue with it in the future too.

Have you been to Japan before?

Yeah, it was my tenth time and I’m going again in two weeks. (laughs)

A few days ago, I was listening to Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, which is one of my favorite records. I thought about you, because of the ECM connection. Before we talk about The Dream Thief, could you tell me a bit about some of the musicians who have influenced you and some of your favorite albums?

The Köln Concert is definitely one of them. A lot of Keith’s discography. But also, many others. Going back to guys like Art Tatum, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, all those guys. Then forward to Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clarke and onto Herbie, Chick, Brad Mehldau, and my colleagues now. Pretty much the entire spectrum. I don’t really limit myself to a certain genre or time in jazz, or music in general. There is just good music and bad music. I just enjoy good music and I’m checking out a lot of music all the time.

What is bad music to you?

There’s not one definition to what makes music bad. I guess I don’t enjoy it when music is meant to manipulate you, when it’s not done from an honest place, you know? It’s not a matter of aesthetics or genre or any characteristics that you might put in music. It’s more connected to the intention behind it. I can listen to a dubstep record and feel that it was done with a lot of honesty and attention to detail and I can really enjoy it. Other times, I feel like something is not as honest and I’m just not interested. I think honesty is a big part of what I enjoy.

The reason I asked is that I was reminded of a recent conversation I’ve had with Jon Madof from Chant Records about what constitutes good and bad music. Jon and I discussed it in the context of “serious” music, which is to say music made with the principal intention of creating art rather than revenue. 

It’s a vast territory. If you listen to Michael Jackson, for example, that was very much created to be successful. And it was. It sold hundreds of millions of copies. But he didn’t lose the honesty of creation along the way. If you listen to Dangerous, if you listen to… well, pretty much everything he did. It was really honest. You listen to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Beatles, all of this kind of stuff that was super successful. It had an honest aspect to it, even though it was meant to be loved. So it’s a tricky thing to say that trying to go for audience love is bad.

The way Jon and I looked at it was as a matter of anticipation of what will be successful. If the commercial ambitions predate the creative process, in my opinion, that disqualifies certain types of mainstream music from being thought of as “serious”.  

It’s an interesting topic. If you think about it, even going back, if you think about Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, you know? Writing for, like, a huge premier somewhere and wanting to create this climax that will get everyone excited. It had a commercial attitude, but it’s serious music. So it’s an interesting discussion. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer. To me, it’s honesty; if you kept that element of honesty along the way or if you lost it. That’s the difference.

Let’s talk a bit about The Dream Thief. This is your first record under Manfred Eicher’s legendary ECM label. How did you end up working with ECM?

I played on Theo Bleckmann’s album. That was the first time we recorded for ECM. We recorded at Avatar Studios, in New York. I knew that Manfred was going to be there but, for some weird reason, I wasn’t nervous. I came to the studio totally relaxed and that kind of opened a channel of communication between us. We immediately locked in on each other’s vision. We were both curious to see what we can discover within the music that is not part of the written material  what’s under the carpet? I felt that we really understood each other.

At the end of the session, he asked me to collaborate with him. We started speaking and it was a two-year process until we actually went into the studio.

Did the fact that you were preparing an album for ECM influence the way you approached the creative process?

Working with Manfred on Theo’s album gave me an insight into what to expect in a recording session. Though you never really know with him — he’s very unpredictable. He gives a lot of importance to the element of air in the music. That ECM sound that you recognize with the label, that’s his vision. That’s how he likes to hear music, that’s how he likes to mic the instruments. That’s his aesthetic world. I knew that he was looking for that and I knew that he was looking for a real moment that happens in the studio, rather than the perfect execution of written music. He’s looking for that transcendent moment. I tried to write music that will allow it to happen. In other words, define a little bit less of what will happen.

The way I wrote the music, it had both angles to it. There was my vision, more or less, and then a complete question mark. Manfred doesn’t pressure you to make a three-minute-long radio single that will be successful. If you want to play a nineteen-minute track, by all means, go for it! That’s very liberating. He’s looking for air and truth.

The search for air has really influenced and informed my music-making since then. It’s kind of an abstract thing to explain. Today, there is a lot of power-jazz going on. I was a part of a few groups that played that. It’s great! I enjoy it. But Manfred came from a different place of… yeah, the word is air. It can be 13/8, it can be super intricate, but it has to breathe. The melodies need to have time to develop naturally. Make it as organic as you can instead of a condensed pop delivery.

Please tell me a bit about the creative transition from your previous albums to The Dream Thief

The Stone Skipper was already something that I can say I feel good with on the level of honesty it carries, although it’s more produced, in a way. It’s the beginning of a process of letting go and not trying to prove anything. It comes with age and experience and making music for a long time. I don’t feel the need to show off my skills too much, if that makes sense. That is very liberating. You can go into the studio and just serve the music without bothering it with your ego and your will to conquer. Going back to Manfred again, in one of the songs, he came back to the recording booth and said, “Guys, no solos on this song. And play it slower!” My immediate reaction was, “Oh, cool! That’s what the music needs!” I didn’t feel like I wanted to showcase my piano-playing here. Let’s just serve the music.

I think The Dream Thief came out intimate and quiet. I like it. It’s just a matter of accepting one side of me that is real. I have other sides. I enjoy playing salsa. I enjoy playing in funk bands. But there is also a side in me that’s more quiet and ECM kind of gave it the legitimacy to exist. That’s a beautiful thing.

I think I accept myself much more. The next one is going to be even more free, in that way. I don’t know how it’s going to come out. I feel less and less worried. I trust myself more, and I trust the musicians I play with.

A while ago, you mentioned that you were thinking of putting out a solo record, but that never materialized. Instead you went forward with the trio format. Do you already have a future album in mind? 

Yes, I do. We are actually going to record it not too far from now, again with ECM. I’d rather not talk about it right now because we’re going to make an announcement about it. The orchestration changes a little bit.

Solo is definitely in the plans, man, but it’s like that saying: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” The more I develop, the better I understand what solo piano means. I think I’m not ready. I mean, in many ways I am, but it’s a fruit that has to be ripe. I want to wait for the moment when there’s no doubt, when I feel like it’s time.

One of the defining aspects of your performances is how cohesive the trio sounds. The trio remained the same for most of its existence, until recently, when Ziv Ravitz left and Ofri Nehemya took over drums. You have a very tight-knit unit, something that isn’t always a given in jazz, where everyone seems to be a part of a hundred different projects simultaneously. How did the trio come into existence?

We met in New York and we played a session. Once we finished the song, we kind of looked at each other and were like, “Oh, that feels familiar!” Although we’d never played together. I guess that’s similar to a new human relationship — whether it’s a friendship or a romantic relationship — where you meet a person and you feel like you already know each other. You understand each other. You can share the same views, the same values, the same sense of humor. Sense of humor is important to me.

We were lucky to start this trio when the three of us were not super busy musicians. That was six or seven years ago. Now, if you look at what Jorge and Ziv are doing, they grew immensely. Jorge is playing with John Zorn and Julian Lage and Miguel Zenón. He is called for all sorts of projects. Ziv is doing amazing. He’s playing with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. He’s doing a lot of great work. I feel like we all grew from the trio. We all started together.

When did Ziv leave?

That happened a few months before the recording, actually. It was like in a relationship: there’s a time when you feel you’re going in different directions. I love Ziv very much and I’m a huge fan of his playing. He was doing a lot of other stuff. We came to a point where we felt it’s time to move on.

He started his own band. He’s playing with Gilad Hekselman and Will Vinson. He does great stuff. And I went my way with Ofri.

How did you meet Ofri?

I’ve known him for many years, from Israel. We met again when he subbed for Ziv at a gig in Canada. I think he came to the Montreal Jazz Fest, if I’m not mistaken.

He’s one of the most humble and ego-less musicians I know. An incredibly quick learner, agile and flexible. Rhythmically, he’s kicking our asses, which is amazing, but he also has this humility about him that really allows everything to flow in a simple way.

I noticed it now, when I played with the Tokyo Philharmonic. Potentially, it’s a stressful thing, you know? It’s solo piano with an orchestra for the first time, in front of a lot of people. But something about Ofri’s character rubbed off on me. He’s not phased out by anything. It can be the biggest venue, it can be the biggest artists and he’s just cool. He’s like, “Eh, it’s just music.” He’s very serious about it, but he can also take it lightly. It means everything and nothing, at the same time. I felt it in Tokyo, “Oh, that’s Ofri helping me through this situation.” It was great, man. I’m super happy with the trio. The guys are awesome.

I enjoy listening to music the old-fashioned way: sequentially. As a fiction writer, I’m always intrigued by albums with a good narrative coherence, albums that tell a story. The Dream Thief’s track placement caught my attention. It starts off gently, with a solo piano track and finishes in an impactful way, with “What Else Needs to Happen?” where you’ve used a speech by President Obama to make a statement about mass shootings and gun violence in the US. What role did track placement play in your creative construction of the album?  

It’s funny. “What Else Needs to Happen?” was the first track we recorded and it’s the last track on the album. We knew, once we did this take, that afterwards you don’t want to hear anymore music. After the track arrives, there’s the closing message talking about the mass shootings and gun violence and the record ends.

I don’t know how that works for you, as a science fiction writer but, once you have the end, it serves as a pillar or an anchor to work backwards.

Actually, that is very similar to the way I plot my books. First, I decide how I want the story to end, then I work backwards to see what needs to happen in order for that ending to make sense. 

Exactly! It’s kind of the same thing with track placement. Manfred was very much involved in it. We’ve had discussions about what I want and what he wants. We found the thing that we both thought was working.

It’s a combination of a few things. First of all, having the general will to tell a story and also to keep the listener engaged in a way that is similar to watching a movie. The first scene is powerful and you want to know what happens afterwards. Sure, you’re building backwards but, at the same time, when you do start to build backwards, you think about how something will feel at the beginning.

It’s hard to say with music, because it’s abstract. Sometimes, you’re thinking about what would work as an introduction from silence. ECM records start with five seconds of silence, always. So, there is the silence and then one note. Then, you think about the arc.

The composition process is more about dealing with the energies rather than sequence. It’s like cooking. You look at the ingredients and think, “What am I missing? Am I missing salt, pepper, am I missing paprika?” It’s an abstract process of looking at what the record needs and then being attentive to the melodies that float around. Subconsciously, sometimes, the puzzles pieces fall into place and you realize it was what you were looking for.

What was your vision for The Dream Thief? What were you hoping to achieve with this album?

These days, the way I look at music… again, I use the word “trust”. In that context, it means that I trust that what I am is good enough. That means I don’t need to try to do anything other than what moves me. I need to write compositions that move me.

Recently, I read an interview with Joel Ross, who is a vibraphone player in New York. He claimed he knows that the song he wrote was good if, the second it ends, he wants to listen to it again. That’s the rule. Every song, when it ends, you have to think, “Fuck, I want to experience that roller-coaster again!” Until you get to that point where there are no dead moments… I guess it’s the same way with a book: there are no moments where you just fill-in the space. 

My view on that is that every single paragraph I write has to be entertaining and meaningful to me. If I don’t enjoy the process of writing it, I assume the reader won’t enjoy reading it. 

Right! It becomes tricky when you try to be functional. When you say, “Oh, I have twenty minutes of music, I need twenty more! Let me write something to fill the gap.” That can’t happen. Every song has to have this urgency to it, where it feels like this is the only thing that can be there. That’s the process, pretty much. And trusting that what I like is okay.

I went to a breathing workshop many years ago, in upstate New York. I was the youngest guy there. There were people from 35 to 75, pretty much. The one thing that no one was able to say wholeheartedly was, “It’s okay to be me!” And it’s a crazy thing to think about. It’s not even, “I am great!” It’s not even that. It’s just, “It’s okay to be me! There is room in this world for what I love to do.” Nobody could say this. Everyone was on some sort of guilt trip, like, “This is not good enough” or “I need to do this or that”.

After a lot of conscious work, I can say, “It’s okay to be me!” Not from a place of arrogance or that I feel  feel I’m better than other people. It’s okay for anyone to be themselves. What I have to offer is a unique story, like any other person in the world.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think it’s difficult for people to say, “It’s okay to be me”?

The thing I learned there is that it’s about guilt. If I feel good, it necessarily takes something away from another person. Or it’s arrogant. All this kind of stuff. There are a lot of psychological processes that kick in, but I think guilt is the main thing. Everybody’s feeling like they are just not good enough.

That doesn’t mean that you stop progressing. My favorite place to be in is the place where I feel like a student. That’s why I stay in New York, even though I’m too cold here. (laughs) The city keeps me a student. No one is really impressed by what anyone is doing. The city is constantly moving. “Oh, you came back from Japan, from the Tokyo Philharmonic? Good for you! Me too, let’s move on!” (laughs)

That keeps you in a student place. That’s great. Accepting yourself doesn’t contradict progress and feeling that you have somewhere higher to go.

A lot of musicians talk about New York in the same way. 

It doesn’t let you rest on your laurels. I feel like, in other places in the world, as soon as you reach a certain level in your career where you’re being looked at with admiration, it becomes a sort of reverence. “Oh, you’re that guy!” If you don’t know how to deal with that, it can make you fall asleep, creatively. That prevents progress. I think there’s a certain moment in life when you’re mature enough to deal with both reverence and criticism in the same way, without letting either of those things affect you too much.

You’ve often talked about the importance of setting aside the ego, both personally and professionally. You claimed you were trying to detach yourself from thinking of yourself as a musician. I know you practice meditation. Why did this become important to you? 

It’s a paralyzing thing to be self-centered all the time. To wake up in the morning and say “I’m Shai Maestro” or “I’m this-or-that guy”. I feel like that’s what Donald Trump is doing every morning. “I’m Donald Trump!” You know, he brushes his teeth, looks in the mirror and talks to himself in third person.

You live through a lens of another person that happens to be you, but it’s another you. Especially with music. The most touching concerts I’ve seen are concerts that are honest, where you feel fragility and you feel simplicity. You see the person. I saw Keith Jarrett and, even though he’s Keith Jarrett, I felt that he was a person. He was talking about his pants that weren’t comfortable that day, you know? That’s the epitome of, “It’s okay to be me!”

To not view yourself as a musician just cancels or phases out all the mannerisms and different hats you put on. “Now I’m playing a solo and the audience needs to applaud.” I’m like, “No, no, no, let’s not do that. Let me just play one note and see what that does to the space and the space resonates back to me and we feed off each other.” Then it’s not my show anymore. It’s not about me. It sounds kind of New-Agey, but I can’t find a different way of saying it. It’s like channeling something that’s not yourself. It represents the deepest layers of yourself, but it’s not about you.

To expand on this notion of detaching yourself from the artist, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that you are in the audience at a Shai Maestro Trio concert. What do you see on stage? What do you hear? How do you perceive the artists and the music?

That’s a hard question, man. I can’t really answer this. I don’t know. I think I see three people on stage listening and being aware of the space of each other’s souls. Together with knowledge acquired along the way, it creates the sound. I can’t really go much further than that, because I just don’t know.

It’s probably similar to the way you are conducting this interview: when you choose to ask me questions and the way that you take on my words as if they were yours, just kind of waiting for the space to come. You see what I mean? That ability exists in the trio. I feel myself many times being ready to say something and I just wait until the right moment arrives. If it doesn’t arrive, I just let go of the idea. What we have in the trio is togetherness. It’s kind of a dance a communication dance. I guess that’s what I would see as an audience member, but I can’t really say for sure.

I know it’s a difficult question.

It’s an interesting one, though. I really like this question. I actually thought about it, yesterday. I  recently reconnected with Avishai Cohen, the bass player. We played at the Blue Note with the trio, with Mark Guiliana. Today, I just randomly stumbled upon an old record of his that I used to listen to, that I’m not on. I went to hear this record being performed at the Tel Aviv Museum. It was magical to me to see it from the outside, especially as a kid. I thought, “Wow, this is some witchcraft shit they’re doing. What is this thing?”

One month ago, I was on stage with him and I don’t know what the audience saw. For me, it was a bunch of notes. There’s this C minor chord, there’s F, there the space. But maybe they felt what I felt back then, where it’s not about the technical aspect of the music, it’s just about the magic of it. I realize that I have no way of knowing it from the stage, from my seat next to the piano. It’s a totally different experience.

Find out more about Shai’s work at his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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