April 19, 2007 after 1st set
So originally the plan was to go to Berklee out of high school, yes? What happened?
Well I was really excited about it. I wanted to skip senior year and go there but my Mom and my principal at school told me “No, you’re not ready yet. You’re too young.” I fought, and lost (laughter), so I stayed, and decided to go after I finished high school. It just didn’t happen I guess. I started getting into classical music, and playing the tabla. I was either planning my way to India or to New York. And then Avishai Cohen called.
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How did his music touch you when you first heard it?
His music is overwhelming for me, first of all because I’m Israeli, and it’s based on Israeli music. This is the basis of his music, and we kind of grew up on the same things. We listened to the same music, we like the same Israeli singers and folk music. Small country, you know? (laughter). So, I felt really close to it. At first I didn’t really know, or couldn’t put my finger on what really attracted me to the music, but now I know.
How did he find out about you and how did you start playing together?
The story is, a friend introduced me to Avishai after a gig. He said “Avishai, this is Shai, he’s a great piano player.” I told Avishai how much I admired his compositions. I remember complimenting him about his compositions specifically, and I think he was interested in me for what I said. Then he said “Man, come over to my house and we’ll play a few tunes.” I was all shaky – I think I must have been 17 or 16. I learned one of his tunes before I went to his house, and when I got to his house we played it, and then he showed me “Smash.” Then we played an Israeli song. It was just a short hang, and I didn’t hear from him for about two years, which was alright with me because I was just happy for having the opportunity to play with him. Then, a few months ago I got a phone call. He said, “Hey Shai, it’s Avishai the bass player.” Of course, I stopped breathing (laughter). “I'm looking for a piano player for my trio. I won't promise anything, just come over and we’ll see how it goes, play a few tunes.” This was basically the opportunity of my life. So I took all of his music, from "Adama", to "At home" – and just learned most of it by heart. I went to his house and he gave me "Continuo", which was his latest CD. It was actually the day before his CD-Release, and I took it to my house, learned it, came back, and we went from there.
It’s as if you were a fan of the Yankees team, and suddenly you find yourself on the Yankees.
Exactly. It’s a dream. What strikes me the most is that I’ve been playing with him and living with him on the road for 7 months now and still, every time we go on stage, or even in rehearsals, I realize again how good he is. His music and playing is so rich with such a simple yet complex musical perception. It’s just amazing. It’s intellectual and natural. Same thing goes for Mark Guiliana. So yes, it’s like playing with the Yankees. (Laughter)
Your parents came to the Blue Note last night. Was this the first time they heard you play with Avishai? And do you come from a musical family?
My mother played classical piano and my Dad plays guitar. We had some rehearsals at my house in Israel, but nothing serious. They wanted to see the show right away, but I told them I needed some time to find my place and feel comfortable. I feel more comfortable now, but it’s always kind of a struggle to stay there. He really wants Mark and I to constantly evolve and progress all the time. If we don’t have a gig for a week and we meet a week after, I feel I need to be better. It’s not good enough to stay in the same spot. I have to be better. You have to push your limits all the time, and it’s great. It’s the best thing I could ask for, someone who cares about my progression.
When you’re on stage, Avishai beams at both you and Mark and really enjoys your playing so much. I kind of seems like he is a big brother in a way. It’s also obvious how much respect he has for both of you. As the bandleader he could take over at any time, but he treats you like equals.
He is amazing in that way. He told me once that he learned that from Chick, whom he played with for six years. He said Chick is so respectful, loving, and giving to his sidemen. It really feels like that – if you give the people you’re playing with your love and the feeling that they’re equal, you’re going to get it back, and he realized that. You receive by giving.
Your touch on piano is very focused – you stay away from the bombastic, flashy approach, and are very thoughtful about what you play. Does this come from your classical background?
The ability to do it comes from classical music. The choice, especially today, came from something different. I knew Hiromi was playing before us, and I wanted to get the contrast across in order to communicate with the people. As a band, we had to do something different which was really great. At first it was a bit scary, playing after Hiromi and all that. She has such a great technique on the piano, but later on I realized it was a great challenge - again, pushing your limits and pushing yourself. Suddenly you start playing different stuff. But the ability comes from classical music, yes.
Did you always know you wanted to be a professional musician?
I'll have to say yes. When I was at Berklee in the five-week program…it was great preparation. It was especially important for me to meet other kinds of people, different cultures and different attitudes. The Israeli spirit is very specific. So anyway, I went to the five-week program, and I remember after the end of it I was in my friend’s room and I told her that I’m not sure if I want to keep playing piano. She was like “What? What do you mean?” I told her “I’m starting to realize what it takes to be at the top. That’s where I want to be, and I don't want to compromise. I’m not willing to be in the middle, so it’s either being there or not at all. And I'm not sure if I have it in me. It’s so intense and so demanding.” So I had my doubts, and it took a while. But my love for music made the decision for me. I love it, so I keep playing. And now, I’m playing with Avishai. By itself, the decision was made, and so, the struggle begins.
So the Berklee Program gave you an idea of what being a professional musician would be like?
Yeah, I met a lot of musicians and had a chance to perform in a huge hall for the first time. They have a place called the BPC – it’s a 1,500 seat venue, maybe more, and it was the first time I was on a serious stage.
I know you are a composer as well – how do you approach composing, and what have you done so far?
It’s an interesting question. Lately, because I’ve been playing with Avishai and we’ve become friends, I have found that his approach to music and to life is kind of the same thing. It’s natural. You know, I wrote some compositions a few years ago, and what happened to me and to a lot of people is that they say, “OK. I’m going to write something in 7/4 now, or something that has this sound or that sound.” And then it sounds like they were trying to do it. I came to Avishai’s house one day for a rehearsal, and he said “Hey man, check out this new composition.” He started playing, and my first reaction was “What was the meter?” He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know!” For a few minutes we tried to figure it out, and then said, OK this is in thirteen. But he just doesn’t think about it that way – he just writes music. He hears the melody, and writes it. Then you can analyze it after and say this is this and this is that. But I feel like the same thing is happening for me now. I’m starting to let those things go. I’m not trying so hard anymore, except to make it as natural and flowing as possible. For me this is a new way of looking at Bach and Chopin and all the classical composers. It’s the same. You can point at this and say it’s the fifth, or this is the minor fourth – No – it’s just music! That’s why we love it so much, and that’s why it stays for such a long time. Mozart – how could it be? The compositions stayed for hundreds of years.
It seems like one can have the same approach to improvisation as well. Keith Jarrett is a big proponent of that – every chance to improvise is a brand new piece – he disregards the A to B and plays in such a cyclical way…
A natural way. It’s nature. That’s exactly it. Keith Jarrett brought it to the highest level. He doesn’t have any phrases or clichés. He knows everything, but you just don’t hear it. You hear music. It’s all one big thing that has smaller cells in the big picture.
Would you say that’s your goal through this whole experience, as a player and in every way to let nature take it’s course?
Yes, exactly. The beautiful thing is that it’s a process that contains everything that has to do with you as a person. You know, if you want to go up to a girl, and all of a sudden you start thinking to much and planning what you're going to say and how to act – forget that. You have to stop thinking and just be honest and natural, and it’s the same with music. Everything applies. It’s a beautiful process, and I feel like it’s just begun for me now. It’s a world that’s waiting to be found. You just have to be very honest, modest, and sincere about what you feel, and let go.