Life & Culture

Meet the Israeli jazz star who is on a wild trajectory

Shai Maestro is a musician who just loves to improvise on stage


Shai Maestro has just made an astonishing reveal. He’s chatting about his approach to playing live, like his recent, hugely successful gig at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in East Sussex.

When he goes on stage, he says, he and his band have no idea what they will play.

Can he be serious? He has no setlist — that touchstone for so many musicians when playing live?

“You got it, no setlist!” he grins. “We never know what will happen. We just start with a note, it could be a G, or a C, and anyone in the band can be playing it. And we just take it from there…”

When you understand Maestro is renowned for his improvisational skills, that makes perfect sense.

The Israeli virtuoso jazz pianist and composer is speaking to me on video link from his home in Nahalat Binyamin, Tel Aviv.

“It’s a beautiful, central neighbourhood, close to a great jazz club — Beit Haamudim,” he says.

“It’s insane and wonderful that such a small country as Israel has so many great jazz musicians, playing what is essentially an Afro-American art form.”

Now 36, Maestro has been on a rise to fame since his first professional break at 19.

That was when he joined bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio, with drummer Mark Guiliana, staying with them for four years, playing the world’s top jazz venues.

After setting up his own band, at 24, the musical globetrotting has not stopped. But he has a special fondness for the UK.

“We have quite a history with England — I started my career at Ronnie Scott’s,” he says of the legendary jazz club in Soho. He returns to play there, with Guiliana, on July 17.

“What I’ve always loved about British audiences is their open minds and willingness to go on a musical adventure. We happen to be on stage, but it’s a communal experience.

"The audience’s energy really affect choices we make.”

Maestro started young, learning classical piano at five. At eight he was listening to and loving jazz pianists such as Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett.

He recalls sitting at his parents’ piano, “trying to imitate the sounds of the forest near our house [in the countryside between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem]. I was listening to the rustling of leaves…the high register was the wind, and animals. I was improvising, but I didn’t know it.”

Now he understands he sees music “in images and colours. That had a big impact later, as my music is very cinematic.”

His parents were very supportive “without pushing me”, and had valuable guidance, such as when he was offered a music scholarship at New York jazz college Berklee at 16.

“It was a full scholarship, come, don’t pay anything. I was on cloud nine. But then my mother and high-school principal wisely told me to shut up and finish high school — it was amazing, loving advice. So I did.”

After graduating, he had plans to go to India and play percussion, or to New York to play the jazz circuit. That’s when he got the call from Cohen, who wanted to hear him play.

“I thought: this is my time to shine.” With typical dedication, he learned not just the piano parts in Cohen’s repertoire “but also the bass, the trombone, treble, and drum parts”.

He claims he wasn’t good enough then: “But I think my passion gave me the entry ticket. After that I had to prove myself.”

With Cohen and Guiliana, he wrote the Gently Disturbed album, featuring nine originals and the Israeli folk song Lo Baiom Velo Balyla.

After four successful years together, Maestro moved to Brooklyn, New York, and set up his own band. They were experimental, he says — “as if we were going in the footsteps of Wayne Shorter, letting the music be more unpredictable”.

As discussed, he is a master of improv, and signed to the iconic ECM label, to which his hero Jarrett is also signed. His “now” group features Israeli drummer Ofri Nehemya, Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder and US trumpeter Philip Dizack.

In an interview for Jazzwise, he told the writer John Fordham: “I’m not a religious person but I am sensitive to when music’s no longer about the notes but the intention behind them,” adding that he felt that with this current line-up, and also in the music of Beethoven, Miles Davis, and in some hip hop and music written for worship.

Maestro’s lockdown project was writing orchestral music and compositions for film. He had no commissions, just an innate sense it might be useful in future.

“Then later on, I was in Berlin, having a beer with a friend, and they said, would I like to play a Debussy concerto?

"And also compose 50 minutes of your own original music for orchestra? Inside I was screaming I have no idea how to do that. What I said was, ‘Sure!’”

His study paid off when he wrote Alice, an orchestral homage to the Lewis Carroll classic; it was played by the Portuguese Chamber Orchestra last year. “They sounded beautiful, that definitely is my future, connecting to my film-score work.” He also performed his own work with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra; and wrote music for a Japanese short film, Nowhere to Go But Everywhere; and Israeli feature Sand Flakes, both released in 2022.

Not bad for someone who comes from a family he says is “not officially musical” — even though his visual artist mum plays “a bit of classical piano”; and his dad, a former pilot, plays guitar. His younger sister plays bass Spanish flamenco style; his two older sisters are “wonderful but not musicians”.

It falls to his paternal grandma, Talma, to be his personal musical maestro. When he writes a piece —and he’s written 80 or 90 so far — she must give her seal of approval.

“My grandma must be able to enjoy it,” he told Jazz Times. “Even if it’s incredibly complex, it must have a thread that allows you to follow it.”

Grandma Talma had a special preview of Human, his latest album, in 2021. She gave it the thumbs-up (phew). “She loves that record. The Grandma rule worked.”

When all’s said and done, he says, “I just love music, I try to nourish that. In this job you are of course exposed to other sides of the music industry.

But if you can keep your love for the music, that will transmit on stage, and it’s going to carry you through.”

Shai Maestro and Mark Guiliana play Ronnie Scott’s on July 17,

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