The Malta Jazz Festival is playing an important role in reshaping the jazz scene, while injecting a new dynamic in the local cultural scene. Veronica Stivala compares notes with its artistic director Sandro Zerafa
One of the wonderful things about (good) festivals is that they draw you into their world, allowing you to experience the plural aspects of their discipline, be it through readings, encounters with musicians, authors, exhibitions, and, of course, the performances themselves. While renowned for its idyllic setting at the waterside Ta’ Liesse on the peripheries of Valletta, The Malta Jazz Festival has slowly been upping its game, bringing jazz literally to the forefront with, for instance, its free lunchtime concerts at the entrance of the Capital City. Whether you like it or not, whether you are aware of the festival or not, cool jazz numbers waft through the city air, drawing you into to the jazz world, during the course of the five days of its running.
These free lunchtime concerts, held outside the Parliament building, are one of artistic director Sandro Zerafa’s signature additions to the festival in his ongoing quest to stimulate the local jazz scene, the festival’s foremost mission, of which more later. The festival also has as front liners legends Chick Corea and Christian McBride.
Before we talk more about the festival, it is interesting to explore the meaning of the word ‘jazz’. Jazz’s roots are undeniably afro-american. Jazz however has evolved through the years, alienating itself from its origins and absorbing many different influences. This has created on-going debates about the real meaning of the word ‘jazz’, especially among purists, notes Zerafa.
He confides how as festival director, one of his main worries “is to present a panorama of the contemporary jazz scene without deviating too much from the soul of what I consider to be jazz”. It was for this reason that he turned to traditional/world music, which has been a constant source of inspiration for many jazz musicians since its origins. And thus, this year’s festival has a strong world jazz element – see Karim Ziad ‘Ifrikya’, and Bokanté for instance. Another clever way of bringing in new listeners: “I think any kind of fusion is a great way to attract new audiences, as long as it is done with taste and as long as there is respect and a deep relationship with the origins of jazz,” comments Zerafa.
Speaking about how the festival has evolved over the years under his direction, Zerafa reveals how he had “always imagined the festival to be something more than just three days of concerts. The festival was originally confined to its Ta’ Liesse venue. The festival's mission is now wider and the events are permeating Valletta’s streets.” He is quick to underline how audiences are growing, without the compromising of artistic content. Indeed the festival now features masterclasses, jam sessions, free concerts, lunchtime concerts, exchanges and collaborations with international jazz establishments.
The above are some of the ways in which Zerafa is working to stimulate the jazz scene, paying particular care to involve the young and to bring in an international strand, by, for example, encouraging collaborations with foreign artists. During the past years the artistic director has organised exchanges and collaborations with international jazz establishments featuring young up-and-coming musicians from Malta. Check out, for instance, The Blue Tangerine in this year’s programme featuring a Franco-Maltese collaboration. Also, for the past five years he has been organising free masterclasses featuring some great musicians and educators from the international jazz scene.
A bit of competition is always a good thing and the festival plans on bringing back its jazz contest. The Malta Jazz Festival has also been collaborating with and is supporting much needed live jazz music venues such as the recently opened Offbeat in Valletta to nurture the local live jazz scene.
Festivals are a great way to tap into pulse of the respective art form so I am curious to know where Zerafa sees it headed. “In many different directions, some exciting, some much less.” Zerafa laments how the popification of jazz is unfortunately creating a sort of homogenised pastiche which is neither good jazz nor good pop. On the other hand, there are some incredible musicians at the moment such a Sullivan Fortner, Jason Moran, Walter Smith III, Yonathan Avishai, Lage Lund, who are taking jazz into new territories yet with a deep respect to tradition.
See the full Malta Jazz Festival programme here.
This article originally appeared in Encore magazine.