When Shai Maestro was 5 years old growing up in a small village perched between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he was drawn to the piano in his family’s living room. It offered him an interesting new game.
“One of my first musical memories is of trying to imitate the sound of the forest outside on the piano,” Maestro recalled in a telephone interview this week. “The high register was the wind, the middle was the animals scurrying around, the lower was the thunder — all very cinematic. I had no idea this was called improvisation.”
Or that he would earn a living doing it in a more organized way. At 32, Maestro is a rising jazz piano star, a veteran of a dozen years with bassist Avishai Cohen, who was among the first wave of Israeli jazz musicians to make a mark here. For the last eight years, Maestro has been part of a trio, whose new album, “The Dream Thief,” is on the famed ECM label, noted for recording the great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, as well as Maestro’s fellow Israeli, pianist Anat Fort. (Incidentally, Maestro is really the family name, “from Spain 300 or 400 years ago,” he said.)
The group bears his name — the Shai Maestro Trio — and it has a big gig next week at one of the city’s premier jazz rooms, the Jazz Standard (Oct. 29-30, 116 E. 27th St., jazzstandard.com). But Maestro considers his bandmates Jorge Roeder (bass) and Ofri Nehemya (drums) equals in all decision making, particularly on the bandstand.
“I believe that if we have this ‘in this together’ attitude, everyone will benefit,” he said. That attitude is a reflection of the reality of touring and recording, he added. “You’re around the guys all the time. … This way everyone feels respected and we get the best of ourselves.”
On the bandstand, the three musicians eschew the conventions of a set list, a decision that is of a piece with the idea of total equality.
“On the bandstand, the music has to be open,” Maestro said. “The leader has to let go of his vision to allow us to make something new every night. If we give one another the ultimate degree of freedom, we will bring our best.”
For Maestro, that is not just about working method, it’s at the root of his whole approach to improvisation — to his bandmates and to his audience — an insistence on “present in the moment” and responsive to impulses coming from any of the people in the room.
“Music has more to offer, and the spiritual aspect gets lost if you stay in the ‘show,’” he said. “It’s a democracy. If I want to go right and the bass player says, ‘Let’s go left,’ I don’t want to have an attitude of ‘no’ on the stage. I don’t want to force [the music] to be something preconceived.”
He likens the ensemble attitude to a family relationship and says, “In a family the first word is trust. I know I can lean on the guys and they can lean on me, whether it’s at the airport or on the bandstand.”
As Maestro says, “I try to express my humanity through my music. One of the things that makes us human is our ability to make choices.”
And he’s been making good ones since he recreated the sounds of the forest when he was 5.