REVIEWS: Shai Maestro - Human

Updated: Feb 13


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Shai Maestro is one of the most innovative, expressive, and well-rounded jazz pianists to emerge out of the current generation of jazz artists. His sound is unlike any other, possessing a distinctive touch and presentation of jazz piano and pairing it with some incredibly complex yet breathtaking original compositions. Ever since he parted from bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio, Maestro has wasted no time in creating an impressive and consistent discography. His debut Shai Maestro Trio establishes his prowess as a frontman, composer, and a musician who has much to offer to the progression and directionality of modern jazz. Maestro’s 2016 release The Stone Skipper was an interesting development for him, seeing more modern experimentalism from the pianist. We get a transcendent synthesizer solo on “From One Soul to Another,” some interesting opera chorals on “Kunda Kuchka,” and even some lo-fi elements, such as record crackling sounds, suppressed piano playing, and synthesizer frequencies, on the opener “A Man, Morning, Street, Rain.” However, the real highlight of Maestro’s career thus far was his 2018 release The Dream Thief. Along with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya, Maestro pioneers his style of jazz piano, mixing traditional jazz elements with Middle Eastern ballad selections to create an aura of bliss musical spirituality on tracks like “My Second Childhood.” We hear some of the greatest extensions of his mind on tracks like “The Dream Thief” and “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You),” and the album wraps together quite nicely with this the closing track “What Else Needs To Happen,” which includes samples of Barack Obama’s disheartening 2016 speech on school shootings and gun control set to melancholic and reflective playing by the trio. The jazz community was in total awe with the greatness this album presented, and many questioned Shai Maestro’s ability to top it. Nevertheless, his answer is his 2021 release Human, a project that advances top-notch levels of musicianship, fluency, and genius.

Human maintains the same rhythm section that Shai Maestro has had on prior albums, with Jorge Roeder on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. These musicians have aided Maestro in pushing past the boundaries of the classic jazz rhythm section trio and evolving it into a more cohesive, experimental group. Jorge Roeder is notorious for using space, an element that is difficult to pull off effectively as a jazz bassist. Modern jazz bass is very different from traditional styles of playing, giving the bassist freedom to play notes that add texture and color rather than notes that outline chord progressions and keep time. On the track “Ima (For Talma Maestro),” Jorge Roeder has the difficult task at keeping the song's momentum going as Ofri Nehemya plays freely on the cymbals and Maestro dances elegantly across the entire bed of the keyboard. He does this not by playing roots and establishing chord changes, but by mimicking the loose playing of the other two, allowing the trio to feed off each other's ideas and reach a climax of unrestricted convergence. Ofri Nehemya is a well-suited drummer to complete the crew, having an amazing tell on when to play and when to lay out. He lets Shai, and sometimes Jorge as well, really follow through with their ideas before adding any extra sounds and textures. When he does add those sounds, they compliment the tone of the quartet, such as on the opener “Time” where he copies Maestro’s half note trills by doing drum rolls on the floor tom and the upper toms. The amazingness of the group doesn’t stop there, with the trio adding esteemed trumpeter Philip Dizack, who brings further dynamic intensity and melodic possibilities. He has a crystal-clear tone that emulates power and virtuosity, which is shown dramatically on the track “GG.” Here we see Dizack has no problem keeping up with Maestro’s signature jazz lyricism, as the two play these incredibly challenging lines in unison, never dropping a beat or missing a note. A jazz album is only as amazing as the musicians on it, and Human certainly satisfies that requirement.

Shai Maestro is known for being one of the most forward-thinking jazz pianists of his generation, and his original compositions on Human showcase his innovative genius and fresh new take on jazz. With that being said, no jazz artist is without their influences and the classic standards that eventually matured into the jazz they play today, and this album pays homage to them. On “Hank and Charlie,” Maestro and the collective play a sweet adaptation of the legendary album Steal Away by the late bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones. He replicates that same focus on spirituals, hymns, and folk songs from Steal Away, with Jorge Roeder playing the melody in the exact type of tone and articulation played by Haden and Maestro sticking to the same chordal simplicity that Jones did. He then strays from that sound, adding some light brushwork by Ofri Nehemya and altering the chord progression in a slightly dissonant way, which is both a testimony to the greats as well as a demonstration of his rendition. The track “In a Sentimental Mood” is a reading of Duke Ellington’s arguably most popular song, off of the classic album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. He strays a little further from a mirrored replication of it, playing it instead in an upbeat modern jazz/hip-hop style instead of the traditional ballad style. Nehemya lays down a sensational groove by feathering the bass drum and utilizing a cross-stick pattern before the rest of the band comes in to match that delicacy, with Roeder and Maestro playing a sparse, repetitive bass line and Dizack playing the melody in a gentle and sporadic way. Shai Maestro takes an incredible solo on this, capturing John Coltrane’s fluency as he builds on his ideas, but also adding a contemporary spin in navigating the changes, reminiscent of other modern jazz greats like Joel Ross and Immanuel Wilkins. The group wraps the piece up nicely, with Maestro playing the classic opening to Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” in a different key, Roeder copying it on bass, and Dizack hitting half-valved tones on the trumpet, ultimately giving the track a nostalgic yet whimsical ending.

The most amazing feat to Human is seeing Shai Maestro’s progression in his discography. This album preserves the same experimentalism from The Stone Skipper with the compositional prowess from The Dream Thief, which makes for a tremendous experience. The second track “Mystery and Illusions” is an example of that shape that his two prior albums sculpted. It begins with Maestro loosely noodling around the chord progression, slowly incorporating Jorge Roeder’s light bass work and Ofri Nehemya’s cymbal work until Philip Dizack doubles the melody. The song has interesting directionality after the melody. There is a short drum solo that transitions into some solo piano playing that switches up the tunes feel and then returns back to the melody. It then gradually increases in dynamics and intensity during Dizack’s killing solo, showing off his altissimo chops and his ability to respond to the smallest detail that the trio might throw in for rhythmic foundation. The following track “Human” is a short piece, but what it lacks for in length makes up for in harmonic resplendence and soulful fluency. It is easily the most memorable composition, taking you above the climatic threshold with their amazing collective sound and resolving it rather abruptly, leaving you wanting more. “The Thief’s Dream” is a retrograde version of “The Dream Thief” from The Dream Thief, where Shai Maestro seems to develop the original somber, distressing idea. The idea of portraying the dream thief’s actual dreams in this erratic and expressive way on Human can be a clue to the inspiration behind The Dream Thief and how its music is relatively passive and calming, presenting this idea of hiding one's true feelings inside and only exhibiting serenity and discipline.

There is no way to fully describe the level of musicality that this quartet has shown on Human. Each of the eleven songs are bursting with musical ideas, and it is difficult to pinpoint them all. The complexity and virtuosity that each member has is amazing individually, but collectively, the group has easily created one of the greatest jazz albums that this year will see. Shai Maestro clearly has every intention to continue developing his outstanding sound and building a repertoire full of revistiable projects that are intimate, authentic, and overall phenomenal. The mix of tradition and originality on Human has foreshadowed this quartet's prominence in the evolution of modern jazz music, especially as we exit this pandemic that has ravished collective playing. There is no doubt that Shai Maestro, Jorge Roeder, Ofri Nehemya, and Philip Dizack will ensure the survival of jazz in the future.

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