Widely regarded as one of the most talented musicians of his generation, Israeli pianist Shai Maestro has, in a relatively short amount of time, built a reputation as a strong musical personality and an in-demand bandleader and sideman.
As part of our jazz interviews series, we talked to him about his cooperation with ECM Records and Manfred Eicher, why he declined a full Berklee scholarship, playing as a sideman, living in New York and other thoughts on building a career as a modern-day jazz musician…
You’ll find the full interview below, but first here are a few key takeaways we pulled out…
On finding booking & management:
“First of all, put as much time as you can in the art form, in the craft itself and become the best musician that you can.
When you feel it’s time, start opening your eyes and ears and see if you can meet a person that shares the same vision that you share, that wants to build something. It’s like searching for the right partner in a way!”
On balancing sideman work with being a bandleader:
“What I understood is that the sideman projects that I do don’t just take me away from my band leader career… They add to it. Not only in the public’s eye, but musically.
If I play with another musician and my musicianship grows because of it, because of the experience of learning and digesting a person’s music and feeling, touching the music with my fingers & learning how to think like that person, that kind of stuff really does good to my music and, eventually, to my band leader career.”
On constantly and consciously learning, both musically and career-wise:
Playing with someone like Avishai [Cohen] between the ages of 18 and 24 (which are very important and significant years for a person) shaped me a lot.
I soaked in everything starting from composition and how to arrange for a band, how to check in a band at the airport, how to run a soundcheck, how to lead a band, how to tell a story…
When I left his band, I kept this soaking habit and I started learning things from other people.
Anyway, here’s the full interview..!
You were awarded a full scholarship to attend Berklee which you ultimately declined. What was the thought process behind that?
I decided not to take the scholarship from Berklee because, first of all, I was a senior at high school, meaning I had one more year to go.
The principal in my school and my mother convinced me to stay and finish high school properly and then decide.
I realized that I wanted to either go to New York, or to India to play Indian percussion.
They persuaded me that I have a way of teaching myself throughout the year and that I don’t really need an institute to be in, to keep on progressing.
So I declined it and a few weeks later I started playing with Avishai Cohen, the bass player.
That was my school those years.
Music aside, how did touring with older artists like Avishai Cohen help shape your career?
I am and have been very much of a “sponge” throughout my life – I soak up the energies of situations and people.
So playing with someone like Avishai between the ages of 18 and 24 (which are very important and significant years for a person) shaped me a lot. I soaked in everything starting from composition and how to arrange for a band, how to check in a band at the airport, how to run a soundcheck, how to lead a band, how to tell a story…
I’ve learned a lot of things from him that are now a part of my playing.
When I left his band, I kept this soaking habit and I started learning things from other people.
I played with Ari Hoenig, Gilad Hekselman, Ben Wendel… all of whom are musicians that I highly admire and appreciate.
Every encounter with them is an encounter of soaking up their musicianship, their personalities and, by virtue of doing that, growing myself.
You made your debut with ECM in 2018 – how has working with such an established and renowned label changed your career?
It’s been a long term dream of mine to work with ECM.
I discovered the label mainly through Keith Jarrett – It was the Köln concert, Paris concert, Lausanne and Sun Bear concerts, La Scala… from there I started discovering the ECM discography.
That includes a lot of classical music and avant-garde artists that I love and admire.
So when I got the call to be a sideman for one of their recordings in New York, I immediately said yes.
When I got to the studio and met with Manfred, we hit it off really nice; we had a good connection between us.
Then Manfred said that he wanted to do something together. It was a dream come true for me!
We’ve recorded two albums under my name so far and we’re obviously preparing the third one these days.
It’s a wonderful experience, I really love the team.
The aesthetic of the label really gets something else out of my music that hasn’t been there before, or that has been hinted in my music before, but it hasn’t been fully released yet.
I’m very happy about this collaboration.
Did you have any expectations of working with Manfred Eicher in advance and how did that compare to the real thing?
I had some expectations but I have to say that the once I came to the session in New York, I came relatively relaxed and it wasn’t like I wasn’t star struck or intimidated in the way that I couldn’t play, if that makes sense.
The encounter was just a meeting of two people that really love music and really loved the exploration process and that was our thread.
That was what connected us.
How did you manage the progression from independent self-booking musician to working with a team and how would you advise other musicians who are currently managing most of their career alone?
That’s a great question.
Most musicians these days start and have to become self-booking musicians (unless you’re picked up at an early age by an agency).
It’s a very tiring and very frustrating task at times.
I have a good friend that had to take a side job for a long time.
When he moved to New York, he worked in a cinema and was really just trying to make a living, but persevered.
He kept on doing it by himself and then put a band together and started booking small shows. These became small tours.
Of course he received a lot of declines throughout the time.
But eventually a great label picked him up too.
And he received a lot of help and now has a team, which is an amazing privilege to have.
I would say that just the fact of having another person involved in your artistic life is great.
It means that there’s some sort of resonance, and you’re not just dealing with everything by yourself, first of all, but also that this resonance, this echo that you get from him or her can help propel the process.
It’s not just up to you to push it.
First of all, put as much time as you can in the art form, in the craft itself and become the best musician that you can.
When you feel it’s time, start opening your eyes and ears and see if you can meet a person that shares the same vision that you share, that wants to build something.
It’s like searching for the right partner in a way, or finding an apartment.
It’s something that takes time to find the right situation for yourself.
And when you feel it’s right, then go for it.
The human factor is very important.
If you can find a person that is respectful and that the energy between you is relaxed, then it’s great for everyone.
What do you consider your biggest achievement to date, as a musician?
My biggest achievement is that I build the musical family that I have.
With Ofri and Jorge and Phillip and Mike and JJ and Gintare [at Good Music Company]
These are my booking & management team, but the fact that they’re seven people that love each other and respect each other and are kind of moving in this together, and everyone is being rewarded constantly, both artistically and financially – I’m very proud of it.
The fact that we can get up in the morning on the road, it’s a very early wake up call, it could be four or five in the morning, and you are very tired after many concerts, you’re happy to see the guys downstairs at four for breakfast, and then in the van, and then in the train and airplane and crack jokes together… and just have a good time offstage and onstage is my biggest achievement for sure.
You continue to work as a sideman, alongside your own projects. How do you balance this and how far ahead are you planning?
As far as sideman, I don’t plan ahead. It’s what I’m being called for.
Sometimes it could be a year in advance, sometimes it could be six months in advance, sometimes it could be like “Hey, are you available tomorrow?”
If I am and I’m into it, I’ll do it.
Balancing between the sideman and the bandleader career can be tricky at times.
Obviously the bandleader career is the main job.
What I understood is that the sideman projects that I do don’t just take me away from my band leader career… They add to it.
Not only in the public’s eye, but musically.
If I play with another musician and my musicianship grows because of it, because of the experience of learning and digesting a person’s music and feeling, touching the music with my fingers learning how to think like that person, that kind of stuff really does good to my music eventually to my band leader career.
It’s important for me to keep on doing it, I try to do it with people that I love and respect and I will always continue to be a sideman.
How has living in New York influenced your work?
Living in New York changed everything for me.
It’s the best place to be for a young jazz musician.
It’s like Disneyland; there are so many inspiring musicians that are more serious than you are, that are more dedicated to do more things.
It keeps you on your toes.
By getting there and waking up in the morning and seeing the list of concerts that people play in and you go in and check out these concerts at night and hearing the level really pushes you forward.
New York is a place where a lot of people who were incredibly serious back at their home country and decided to take it to the next level came to.
It’s like a jazz champions league in a way.
It grounds you, it makes you more humble.
It’s like if you’re not delivering the best music you can on the bandstand, then there’s another piano player who would do a better job than you.
I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
I made a second family over there.
The friends that I’ve made in New York will remain my friends for the rest of my life. I’m very lucky to have experienced that.
Looking through your socials, you post a lot of high quality content. How important do you feel these direct-to-fan channels are at establishing a career?
The world changed drastically with the internet and social media.
I have a love and hate relationship with it. I tried to keep my posts kind of music oriented or politics oriented.
If I feel like there’s some social issues that I want to talk about.
Social media can have really beautiful implications but really bad implications as well.
The main one is that, especially for younger musicians, that it becomes the goal rather than “Hey, I worked on music my entire life and let me share something with you” it becomes like they’re creating content to share on social media. That’s the goal and it’s very dangerous, in my opinion.
Maybe it should be taught in schools and for sure at home – parents should teach their children how to behave in a healthy way on the internet, on social media.
It’s something that right now is completely open, it’s starting to be regulated but it’s not there yet, it can have very dangerous implications.
I’m not even talking about the photos of young people who look very successful, but are depressed.
You know, this area of research is the most dangerous aspect over there.
But musically, I think it has a very damaging potential if you don’t manage it right.
What piece of advice would like to give musicians just preparing to release music under their own name for the first time?
When you’re recording your first album, try to think as if you’re recording your eighth album.
Meaning: try to imagine that after recording and releasing seven albums, you’d be in a place you’re relaxed.
All the excitement is cool and nice but now you’re through that.
Let’s release something that is honest and mature and experienced.
That way of thinking kind of changes the way you’ll potentially see your first record, rather than trying to show everything you got.
Try to look for what is authentic and what resonates as ‘real’ to you.
That does good to the music and that reaches the people in the most direct way, because it’s real and it’s you rather than a public image that you want to portray. That’s my advice.
Many thanks, Shai, for taking the time to answer our questions!
You can find Shai’s bio below and connect with him via the links below:
Shai Maestro (1987) is one of the most promising and talented pianists of his generation. Since his debut with his own trio in 2011, Shai has shaped a strong and unique personal identity and has portrayed an incredible musical fluidity, making him and his band one of the most powerful and harmonious groups in the jazz world today.
Shai’s sixth album and second album for the famous label ECM, Human, is coming out on January 29th, 2021. On this album, Maestro’s outgoing, highly-communicative band with fellow Israeli Ofri Nehemya on drums and Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder becomes a quartet with the inspired addition of US trumpeter Philip Dizack.
Shai Maestro was invited to perform with Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Keitaro Harada at Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in August 2019. The program consisted of Miho Hazama’s first piano concerto as well as Shai’s original music.
“Hearing Shai Maestro is like awakening to a new world.” – All About Jazz