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Shai Maestro : The Dream Thief

Jazz With A Message

by Robin Kidson



Shai Maestro


Can jazz (or any other piece of music for that matter) convey a message? It can certainly convey emotion – joy, sadness, anger – but can it carry anything more cerebral; a political or religious message, for example? The answer is yes, to an extent. If the music is accompanying a song, then the words can certainly be made to transmit any amount of different messages. A piece like Strange Fruit, for example, is a brilliant amalgam of words, metaphor and music which produces one of the most searing indictments of racism you’re ever likely to hear:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…

Here is the incomparable Billie Holiday version.



Titles of musical pieces can also convey messages. For instance, it’s pretty clear what Max Roach was trying to say in his Freedom Now Suite, or Sonny Rollins in his similarly titled Freedom Suite. The big British jazz act of 2018, Sons of Kemet, called their Mercury Prize nominated album, Your Queen Is a Reptile. Now, I’m pretty sure that they don’t really believe our queen is a reptile but the titles of each of the tracks imagines a black woman as a sort of alternative queen.

Here is the band playing My Queen is Harriet Tubman live at the Mercury Prize giving ceremony earlier this year.





Perhaps, then, a piece of music cannot really carry a message on its own. It needs some sort of context: song words, titles, explanatory Barack Obamanotes.


These musings have been provoked by a new ECM album called The Dream Thief by the Israeli-American pianist, Shai Maestro. He is joined on the album by Jorge Roeder on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. The standout track is called What Else Needs To Happen and its message is about the horror of the school shootings in America and the need for gun control. That message is brilliantly conveyed through recorded excerpts from speeches by Barak Obama when he was president. In the excerpts, Obama is calling for greater gun control with both reason and a suppressed but genuine anger. It sounds at times like he is improvising his words. Obama had a rather untypical upbringing for an Afro-American but he can still call on the oratorical skills of black preachers and politicians – and the improvisational skills of a jazz musician. The way he talks is the way a jazz musician might phrase and structure a solo. Maestro’s music skillfully blends in with Obama’s words resulting in a most haunting piece which is both sombre but hopeful at the same time. It’s no use jazz seeking to convey a message if the music is no good but Maestro’s compositional skills are spot on here.




Here is the video of What Else Needs to Happen. Incidentally, the use of images in the video is yet another way in which contemporary jazz musicians can get a message across.





Sandy Hook Connecticut shooting picture



Maestro’s inspiration for the piece was personal:

“An acquaintance of mine, the saxophonist Jimmy Greene, lost his little daughter in the massacre at Sandy Hook, Connecticut. These school shootings in America have become so common, almost ‘normal’ – it’s surreal, insane. When I realised what happened for Jimmy and the rest of those parents, it felt so close – it was heartbreaking.”

Shai Maestro was born in Israel in 1987. He started playing classical piano at the age of 5 but gravitated towards jazz, winning various prizes and also scholarships to study in America. He has settled there, living in Brooklyn, and has dual Israeli and American citizenship. He first came to prominence playing with fellow Israeli, Avishai Cohen. In 2010, he formed his own trio which released four albums. In 2018, he signed with the mighty ECM, and The Dream Thief is his debut album for the label as leader.




As well as Avishai Cohen, Maestro has also collaborated with some of the other big names in contemporary jazz. For example, here he is duetting with Chris Potter on All The Things You Are.




 Shai Maestro The Dream Thief
Maestro’s style on The Dream Thief is quiet and reflective. He knows almost instinctively when to let the spaces between the notes do their stuff but he can also pile on the notes when required, displaying an absolute mastery of his instrument. There is a touch of Keith Jarrett in his playing down to, and including, Jarrett’s trademark grunts and shouts.

In addition to What Else Needs To Happen, there are eight other tracks on the album, most of them Maestro’s own compositions. He writes some great tunes, from the almost 'poppy' Lifeline, through the classical vibe of Choral, to the out-and-out jazz of New River, New Water.

I come back though to What Else Needs To Happen, the last track on the album. I’ve been playing this quite a bit over the last few weeks and each listen opens up more to enjoy and savour. It really is an original piece of the highest quality. It does, however, raise the question as to the purpose of this sort of “message jazz”. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that these are more personal statements of identity and belief rather than serious attempts to persuade others. The last word here belongs to Shai Maestro who picks up on this and says:

“I understand that in jazz a piece like this I could be ‘preaching to the choir’, but What Else Needs To Happen is about being open to the moment in another way. I think performing artists, because we have a stage, have a responsibility to speak about the world we live in today. Maybe the combination of Obama’s words and the music will help people hear and feel the emotional reality a bit more. It is, for me, at least some measure of resistance to that horrible new ‘normal’.'



Here is the “official video” from ECM with shots of the trio playing and recording the title track The Dream Thief:




The Dream Thief is widely available, including on Amazon (click here).There is also information about the album on the ECM website (click here) and finally, you can find out more about Shai Maestro on his website (click here).


Shai Maestro



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Other pages you might find of interest :

Celebrating Martin Speake
Keith Jarrett After The Fall
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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