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An Israeli Jazz Maestro Jams Smart

January 20, 2011
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Jazz in the key of a Maestro?

 

He is not Seinfeld's Maestro.
 
No -- he's Israel's.
 
And with a name like Shai Maestro, you just knew he had to be good.
 
Which he is: The Israeli jazz pianist offers tastes of his talent at a Sunday brunch performance on Nov. 20 at World Cafe Live, capping the fourth annual Israeli JazzPhest of Philly.
 
The 10-day festival -- sponsored by a trio of clubs and Congregation Beth Am Israel, in partnership with the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia -- gets kicking on Nov. 10, with an 8 p.m. opening performance by Oran Etkin and Kelenia at the Philadelphia Cleff Club of Jazz.
 
He may be concluding the series, but Maestro is just starting out himself, bringing out his debut album of the Shai Maestro Trio early next year.
 
Touring and recording with notables such as Avishai Cohen for a number of years, Maestro's new act -- joining Jorge Roeder on bass and drummer Ziv Ravitz -- has him pedaling his own brand of jazz -- composing, scheduling and, of course, playing. And if this past summertime's gig at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel meant a lot to the 24-year-old sabra who hails from just outside Tel Aviv, summertime has always had a special seasonal feel.
 
It was while listening to pianist Oscar Peterson's rendition of the Gershwin Songbook , specifically "Summertime," that Maestro, at the age of 8, had a revelation of sorts right out of A Chorus Line: Not so much that "I could do that," he remembers thinking, as "I'd like to try that."
 
"I heard him perform two versions of 'Summertime' on the album and I thought it was a mistake," recalls Maestro.
 
But it was all part of Peterson's plan, with both "Summertimes" springing from different influences and rhythms. "I then learned about what it means to do improvisation."
 
He has been doing improv ever since thematically, but, career-wise, Maestro is a man with a plan.
 
He won scholarships to the Berklee College of Music's summer program two years running, before he ran off with a four-year, tuition-paid grant from the school while he was still a teen.
 
By the time he was 22, Maestro was ready to 86 a relatively restrictive career in Israel for the hallmark and halls of jazz worldwide: New York.
 
But things were far different when he arrived in the Big Apple: "It wasn't like I was the new sensation of New York," he says humbly. "I was just one of many diving into the scene."
 
He had some guidance, getting into the swim with a little help from his friends. "The Israeli jazz community in New York is a close one," he says.
 
Maestro has now closed his role as sideman with Avishai Cohen and propelled himself front and center as new trio band leader. "It feels very natural."
 
Not all of the band is made up of members of the tribe; indeed, Peruvian bassist Roeder is not Jewish. But the beat goes on, says Maestro, attracted to Latin-influenced sounds.
 
"I won't define myself by any one influence," he adds, citing a range of examples from Peterson to classical to the Beatles.
 
"I try to let the way music moves me come out on its own."
 
Something in the way it moves him? Didn't he just give an inadvertent kudo to the Fab Four's influence?
 
Maestro laughs: Yes, he agrees, "I guess I did." 

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