REVIEW: ‘Human’ – Shai Maestro

THIS ALBUM has already become very special – and it’s taken a while to evaluate why, on each listening, Human continues to play on the senses in such a powerful way.

Israeli pianist Shai Maestro, who recorded four albums with bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio, recently appeared on Ben Wendel’s High Heart (Edition Records, 2020), doubling with Gerald Clayton to create dynamic atmospheres on piano and Fender Rhodes as part of a sextet fronted by Wendel’s tenor sax and the unique voicings of Michael Mayo. This new quartet release, however, with double bassist Jorge Roeder, drummer Ofri Nehemya and trumpeter Philip Dizack finds Maestro returning to the his own chamber project, presenting original music alongside an adroit Duke Ellington reinterpretation.

So what marks it out with such distinction? The acoustic line-up isn’t especially unusual. But this feels so sensational – often quietly so – that it pulses the kind of emotional electricity experienced when hearing a specific contemporary jazz approach for the very first time; and that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Human follows The Dream Thief (ECM, 2018) with Roeder and Nehemya – a recording that presented a pianist whose classical training paved a way to his uniquely restless, oblique yet precise impressionism; and a trio that, through some extraordinary kind of alchemy, considerably elevated the traditional expectation of the format. But now, Dizack adds a significant dimension to Maestro’s work, his seemingly inexhaustible palette of trumpet textures, always beautifully toned, melding immaculately with the original personnel’s established creativity. Here is an ensemble that walks the enigmatic tightrope between precise arrangement and spontaneous improvisation, which feels crucial to the success of these eleven tracks.

Maestro’s intricate ornamentation, across an hour that demands absolute concentration, is exquisite. Following the abstract prelude of Time, waltzing Mystery and Illusions is the first indicator of his chromatic searching, punctuated by beautifully fidgety drum invention, before Dizack matches the piano’s melodic lines and then takes stratospheric flight. In GG, the rapid complexity of these shared piano and trumpet ‘improvisations’ is simply extraordinary, while homey title track Human culminates in a grandeur featuring Dizack’s distinctive, portamento-shaped phrasing. Bristling, explosive The Dream Thief continues the theme of the previous album’s title track. In Hank and Charlie is heard the most graceful, country/gospel-imbued tribute to Maestro‘s heroes, Hank Jones and Charlie Haden – 4:42 of sheer, balladic perfection, right down to the concluding harmonic effect as the piano’s sustain pedal is lifted.

In an imaginative reworking of In a Sentimental Mood (in particular, the Ellington/Coltrane meeting), staccato snippets of the melody are stated over continually bobbing rivulets of accompaniment, with the various strands seamlessly intertwined. Only at its conclusion comes a reverent nod to the original’s legato elegance. Understated Compassion allows Maestro’s vocal expressions to be heard, while They Went War represents futility through repeated snare pattern and mournful trumpet. A simple, falling, Beethovenesque figure is central to Prayer, featuring Nehemya’s fascinating percussive maelstrom; and the meditative Middle-Eastern swirl of Ima once again highlights the pianist’s semitonal finesse.

Shai Maestro describes this music as often arriving in quick bursts of creativity during the stillness of night, and then letting it “just be”, presenting it as a “human effort”. As a listener completing that circle (or square), I extol the beauty, craftsmanship and warmth found in both Human and The Dream Thief – wondrous, attentive recordings that will undoubtedly stay with me for a very long time.

Released on 29 January 2021, Human is available from ECM Records and Proper Music.

 

Shai Maestro piano
Jorge Roeder double bass
Ofri Nehemya drums
Philip Dizack trumpet

shaimaestro.com

ECM Records – ECM 2688 (2021)