Review: Malta Jazz Festival

Simon Adams sees great potential for a high quality European festival in Valletta, this year host to Warren Wolf, Tom Harrell, Brad Mehldau and more

Malta tends to get overlooked as a tourist destination, but the island has lots to offer the cultural visitor. Its capital Valletta is the most perfect, planned Baroque city in Europe, surrounded by an impressive ring of fortifications to keep out the Ottoman Turks and other infidels. There are Neolithic temples and Roman remains scattered around and a nearly completed Renzo Piano-designed parliament building of great beauty. And any country that can offer two outstanding Caravaggios in its main cathedral must be worth a visit in my book.

Another good reason for going is the Malta Jazz Festival, now in its 24th edition. The festival rightly supports and promotes local talent, but since the total Maltese population is only just above 400,000, that limits the pool of musicians available. The festival’s response is to top up the bill with high-profile American headliners. And here I think the festival misses a big trick.

The local groups were a bit of a mixed bag. Best by far was the Joseph Camilleri Trio, led by a local drummer who studied music in London. His classic piano–bass-drum trio was cool and considered, its initially tentative pianist Joe Debono gaining in confidence as the evening progressed to turn in some fine solos towards the end. Camilleri himself had a nicely varied touch, never intruding too much into the three-way interplay. The opening quintet led by pianist Paul Abela was also good, his son Ryan ably supporting him on bass. The drummer on this set was Charles "City" Gatt, venerable founder of the festival itself and obviously a much-loved musician on the island. Three Galeas made their mark. Pianist Dominic Galea studied in London with Stan Tracey, but his trio sounded unfocused in its choice of material. Guitarist Marc played well with Paul Abela, but it was Francesca Galea’s set that most commanded attention. A singer best known for her Brazilian influences, she chose to sing a set of Horace Silver songs in memoriam. However, her voice was not strong enough for the up-tempo hard bop numbers, a fault that could have been rectified had she chosen to sing some of Silver’s notable ballads. She was also overpowered by her excellent band, composed entirely of European musicians who had tutored local musicians in the jazz camp the week before. At times, they played her off the stage.

The visitors were also a mixed bag. French pianist Laurent Coq played with a guitarist and singer, but the results were uneven. Coq was quite hard-edged and insistent at times, but guitarist Ralph Lavital was as smooth as Joe Pass, while the wordless sweet vocalising of singer Nicholas Pelage sounded out of place. New York’s five-piece Kneebody were busy to little effect, their complex pieces made up of distinct sections that lacked cohesion. They would like to think they are edgy. I judged them nerdy. Best of all was vibraphonist Warren Wolf (pictured right), a member of the San Francisco Jazz Collective whose latest set is out on Mack Avenue. Moving between vibes, electric piano and a grand piano, on which he was surprisingly sensitive, he delivered a hard-hitting set of great variety. On the slower pieces, Wolf showed off his four-mallet technique, discarding two when the tempo increased. Drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Joe Sanders supported him admirably. A strong festival set.

Which brings me to the missing trick. The Malta Jazz Festival rightly concentrates on its home base but requires some outside musicians to headline the shows and bring in a wider audience than just the local cognoscenti. So why rely just on visiting Americans when Malta is right next to Italy, one of Europe’s leading jazz nations? Why not refocus this festival on Malta and its neighbours and turn it into a festival of Mediterranean jazz in one of Europe’s finest capitals? I would go to hear a festival headlined by Enrico Rava or Stefano Bollani and catch some local talent along the way.

I make these comments largely because of the rather indifferent quality of the headliners, with the exception of Tom Harrell’s Colors of A Dream sextet, his piano-less, two bass group. Harrell is easy to overlook, despite his massive discography, but he turned in a high-quality set of compositions with strong melodic hooks reminiscent of an Adderley brothers outing, altoist Jaleel Shaw a pint-sized Cannonball of constant interest. The two basses included Esperanza Spalding, who contributed wordless vocals. Harrell himself was a delight on both trumpet and flugelhorn, his clear intonation standing out for its clarity and precision. The only weak link was tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, whose solos were often garrulous and unconnected to their surroundings. However, he fitted perfectly into the three-way interplay of the frontline.

The other two headliners were not in that league. Brad Mehldau continued his collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana in Mehliana, an outfit I had hoped would work better in an outdoor festival setting than in the rarefied context of London’s Barbican where I last saw them. But I was wrong, for Mehldau’s keyboard work was still dull and repetitive and drummer Guiliana unsubtle, the two combining to prog-rock bombastic but empty effect. And as for the main event of the weekend? I pleaded an early-morning flight and utter dread at the sight of a multi-storey drum kit to skip the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion on its "The Heavy Metal Bebop Tour". The name says it all, really.

Photo: Jimmy Katz

Visit Malta:

Excelsior Hotel:
As the premier destination among 5-star Valletta hotels, the Grand Hotel Excelsior is ideally located on the doorstep of a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the City of Valletta, with all its major attractions, art treasures, and historical architectural gems. This acclaimed Valletta Malta hotel prides itself in providing the discerning traveller with magnificent accommodation, breathtaking views, state-of-the-art meeting rooms, and an unforgettable dining experience.

Air Malta:
National carrier Air Malta continues to operate an extensive year-round scheduled service of up to 26 flights per week from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester with fares from as little as £74 one way, inclusive of taxes and 20kgs of baggage. Air Malta also operate regional summer charter flights from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham,
Newcastle, Exeter, Norwich and Glasgow. For more information visit

Malta Jazz Festival:

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