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Shai Maestro Is Only Human

The pianist and composer’s music may sometimes suggest otherwise, but he’s very much of this world—believing in the value of intimacy, conversation, and the “Grandma Rule”

Shai Maestro Quartet
The Shai Maestro Trio +1 (left to right): Philip Dizack, Ofri Nehemya, Maestro, and Jorge Roeder (photo: Caterina di Perri/ECM Records)

So how do you take that mischief, that fluidity, and bottle it in a recording?

“The first word that comes to mind is ‘trust,’” Maestro said, revving himself up for one breathless quote. “Having mileage with Jorge and Ofri plays such a huge role in getting into the studio and capturing something a) to the point, b) alive, and 3) human. The two years that we played together with Ofri as a band before recording [2018’s] The Dream Thief, then Human—the spectrum of energy in which we operated—found us going from the slowest, most sparse ballads, almost not playing anything, to rock & roll. Jorge, do you remember in the Czech Republic someone passing out at one of our shows? We got to such high levels of intensity and super-intimate stuff that going into the studio was with all of that knowledge of everything that we can do. How the music can feel. Second is the knowledge of the songs. The music on Human is incredibly hard to play and has a lot of challenges for all of us: rhythmically, harmonically, technically. Jorge is doing crazy bass acrobatics on this album. So is Philip on trumpet. But knowing the music well, to a point that we can play it with … I don’t want to say ease, but the ability to make the difficulty more natural, was a huge key in making Human human. The last ingredient, then, is letting go. Then things just happen by themselves. I know that sounds a little clichéd, but we are trying to channel something or be a vessel to something larger than us. Those are the main ingredients—the secret ingredient being Philip, who is amazing and brought a whole other level of spirituality.”

But what about that difficulty? Where did it come from? The pianist blames both the inherent nature of the compositions themselves and the audacity of his collaborators. “It is the chutzpah of having Jorge and Philip tackle songs and moments of music that weren’t originally intended for them,” Maestro said with a smile. “The best example is our take on Ellington’s ‘Sentimental Mood.’ The arrangement was written for a duo, for vibraphone and piano, for me and Joel Ross. For piano, it’s hard-ish. For vibraphone, it’s hard because there are really big leaps, more distance to travel with the mallets. Joel did it wonderfully. But Jorge and Philip heard it and wanted in. I knew what the difficulties in making big leaps on the bass entailed—staying in tune and such. Jorge created his own brand of hell going into it. My ‘Sentimental Mood’ has two characters, one being all those crazy arpeggios and the other [being] the melody that’s wound through the song in weird, displaced locations. I told Philip to have at it, but that I need the melody to be played in such a way that it sounds easy. So he had to play the melody a little louder and then play the rest of the stuff a little quieter. Which is insanely hard on trumpet.”

Don’t ask. Just listen to the leaps and bounds made by the participants in one take, a (dare we say) superhuman effort. 

“This was not my fault, make that clear,” Maestro laughed.

 Which brings us back to the pinched nerves.

“One more thing that I should add,” Roeder said, “is that we did it in one take because I had to go to the hospital due to this.”

Seriously?

“Oh yeah. I developed a pinched nerve in my cervical vertebrae and I was in such a ton of pain I couldn’t go into the upper register. I actually had to stop, go to the hospital. It was one take, as I had to be bedridden.”

“That’s pretty Olympian, no?” Maestro said. “I told Jorge that it wasn’t meant for him. He wouldn’t listen.”

“I’m allowing more in, allowing things to happen. I would be sitting next to the piano not trying, not playing.”

Finally, we came to grandmothers. “I’ll tell you what each song has to have with me: I go by the Grandma Rule,” Maestro said. “Which means that my grandma must be able to enjoy it. Even if it is incredibly complex, a song must have a thread that allows you to follow it. That thread could be elusive, subtle, or quite obvious—but a thread has to exist.” 

When putting together Human’s “The Thief’s Dream,” Maestro wanted to nerd out and be show-offy. “Then I had to consider that I was doing this for ECM, as well as the Grandma Rule,” he said. “Having mined the values of space and honesty, and melody and air, I had to think things out, which created a separation between its layers: a rhythmic layer, which is 13/8, on top of this ballad, [which is] something like a waltz. So you get something that is multi-dimensional.”

During the two-year workshopping period of Human—a significant portion of which he originally wrote for a project called “Time,” commissioned by the Jazz Gallery—Maestro absorbed much that was around him in his home of New York City, a “constant culturalism” that included daily shots at theater, film, dance, and museum/gallery exhibitions. “I’m allowing more in, allowing things to happen,” he said. “I would be sitting next to the piano not trying, not playing. And when I do, instead of trying to conquer and manipulate the listener—writing and playing the thing that will bring success—it doesn’t become about the process anymore. I’m there, recognizing a zone that is real and honest and essential. Then I capture the moment, which can be very big or extremely small and nuanced, all of which I treat like precious cargo, like finding gold nuggets in the river.”

“Shai’s process is becoming broader and broader—complex, then simple, but all played with the same intention,” Roeder said. “We’re getting better at it, and he, as a composer, is becoming more self-referential. It’s as if, on Human, he’s putting Easter eggs along the trail for us to follow. So we just keep exploring.”

Maestro believes Human is his most distilled work to date. “It’s like what you do to a diamond,” he said. “You polish it. It’s like studying a language, where you master the vocabulary, the different aspects of grammar, and the accents to have a conversation. That’s how you give another person the fullest picture of who you are—as a human.”

But what about Maestro’s grandmother, who inspired a new rule?

“My grandmother is alive and kicking and hilarious,” Maestro says with a giggle. “She’s full of joy, and it’s a privilege to have her around. And yes, she loves the record. The Grandma Rule worked.”