May 24, 2024

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Malta Jazz Festival 2018: Chick Corea, The Blue Tangerine, Christian McBride and others on stage: Photos, Video

My knowledge of Malta was previously limited to The Maltese Falcon, the three WWII biplanes Faith, Hope and Charity, and the islanders’ favourite confection, Maltesers – only joking, but it’s a joke the Maltese seem to appreciate, since my hotel mini-bar was stocked with them.

It’s a beautiful location for a festival – the main stage is by the waterfront in Valletta, an historic old city whose gorgeous golden limestone gives an impression of the Cotswolds by the sea – it’s European Capital of Culture 2018. It’s a very wealthy island, and it’s striking that there are UK chains – M & S, Boots, Waitrose – but also a profusion of independent shops the like of which is no longer found in the UK.

The artistic riches are musical as well as architectural. Festival director Sandro Zerafa is from Malta, and first got interested in jazz when he was 17 and saw Elvin Jones’s Jazz Machine at the festival. He comments that “My vision has been to find a balance between music with a wide popular appeal, and music for the jazz connoisseur”, and he likes contrasting double-bills – the lighter and the heavier. An important role is to have an exchange between Maltese and other jazz musicians, he believes. The local jazz scene is inevitably a small one, given that the island has the population of Edinburgh (around 450,000). He knows from long experience that there’s no predicting the size of the audience, or their reaction. But he recognises that some jazz that needs an intimate setting might not work in the outdoor venue – Mark Turner for instance.

There were no such problems with the headline act, the Chick Corea Trio (Corea pictured above right), with John Patitucci and Dave Weckl. They began a compelling set with a Corea original, Morning Spray, followed by a couple of arrangements of standards. That Old Feeling was introduced by John Patitucci, who commented that as well as original compositions, the leader “has an amazing catalogue of arrangements”. In A Sentimental Mood featured Weckl on brushes, which undermined my image of him as a fusion power-drummer. Lifeline was a challenging Corea original, while Domenico Scarlatti was an arrangement of one of that composer’s over 500 sonatas, I think – he’s been a big influence on Corea. You And The Night And The Music was “arranged by one of my favourite arrangers, which is me”, Chick commented. No false modesty here, then; but as Corea said, if he didn’t enjoy his own arrangements, he wouldn’t write them.

The pianist is an intriguing player, and the concert gave some insight into the mystery – or unbearable lightness – of being Chick Corea. He created that wonderful album Return To Forever, but has played some questionable fusion in his time. This set was straightahead jazz, though Weckl (pictured left) comes from a fusion background and has a rather unyielding beat. Patitucci was first-class. Corea isn’t as rhythmically free as Keith Jarrett, his fellow Miles Davis acolyte, and there’s a feeling that his improvisations don’t always hang together – but they at least form a collection of dazzling fragments. He’s not a brilliant pianist, technically; this wouldn’t mean he wasn’t a great improviser, but I reckon his greatest achievement is as a composer. These criticisms – insofar as that’s what they are – aren’t anything to do with age, though he is 77. He’s a dynamic stage presence, with good audience rapport.

No such doubts about the highlight of the festival, Christian McBride’s oddly-titled quartet New Jawn, with Marcus Strickland (tenor, soprano and bass clarinet), Josh Evans (trumpet) and Nasheet Waits (drums). Stylistically the band sometimes went far out – but came back in, taking the audience with them. The opening number Pier One Import, by Josh Evans, had a tight Latin feel; John Day (McBride) was a minor-key 6/8 piece in memory of a friend, with Strickland on bass clarinet. Kelly’s Sketch – I think that’s the title – was Nasheet Waits’ portrait of his wife, a free melée with Strickland on tenor that turned into a bluesy vamp, if that has significance. Ballad For Ernie Washington was a beautifully harmonised minor theme with a Booker Little flavour; “Ernie Washington” was Thelonious Monk’s nom de plume when his cabaret card was withdrawn. Marcus Strickland’s The Middleman was a subtle, sophisticated, complex yet appealing composition. Brother Malcolm, by McBride, had an obvious dedication; the set concluded with an Ornette Coleman composition with a Latin feel that I’m still trying to identify.

The leader’s music is a lot livelier than I recall from when I listened before the millennium – maybe that was down to pressure from his then-label Universal? There were suggestions of Ornette Coleman, Old And New Dreams in particular – and Max Roach’s piano-less groups especially those featuring Booker Little. Nasheet Waits was a hyper-kinetic but always thoughtful and stimulating drummer. Josh Evans has a brassy, non-muted trumpet, not in the fashionable Miles Davis style, while Marcus Strickland is a phenomenon whose solos are challenging and intriguing. The leader is a formidable bassist and he has a really amazing quartet. This band doesn’t seem to have recorded yet, but McBride’s recent work can be heard on the excellent Live At The Village Vanguard.

Opening for Christian McBride was The Blue Tangerine, a Franco-Maltese collaboration stemming from the festival’s Fringe Youth Jazz Orchestra initiative and generating connections between local and international musicians. Their lively compositions and improvisations showed the potential of younger French and Maltese jazz players. Other concerts on the main stage included Bokanté, in which Snarky Puppy leader Michael League fused groove with world musics, and a band featuring the very attractive music of Brazilian singer-songwriter João Bosco.

The festival began intelligently with free events at prominent points in Valletta, to raise local awareness. Israeli guitarist Yotam Silberstein led a band that performed his plangent originals on the steps by City Gate, next to Renzo Piano’s amazing new Parliament House, completed in 2015. Silberstein was vocalist on a couple of pieces, and his band was totally sympathetic; as throughout the festival, the sound system was excellent, with a sensitive volume level. To conclude the free events later that evening, Karim Ziad and Ifrikya performed in front of the law courts, offering a compelling integration of north African music with jazz. It was a well-conceived, superbly organised and musically memorable festival.

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