This somewhat cursed and infamously covid-ravaged year is doubly heart-breaking for local jazz musicians and fans. Why? Well, it actually marks the 30-year anniversary of the Malta Jazz Festival (MJF), whose long and illustrious trajectory began in 1991 and, which, barring a controversial couple of years in the mid-noughties, has maintained an impressive benchmark of quality since the beginning, raising an aspirational bar for all other large-scale events in Malta and Gozo for nearly a generation.
While the MJF was absolutely never an elitist experience, neither is it controversial to say that technical finesse and prowess lies at the forefront of the jazz experience for both performer and listener, and that the virtuoso and improvisational elements that mark the genre come out in full force during live shows. It is, in large part, for this reason that seasoned jazz musicians like double-bass player Oliver Degabriele and singer Nadine Axisa view the event as not just an established benchmark of the local cultural calendar, but as a key component of their musical coming-of-age.
“The festival has been a constant inspiration since the very first edition I attended in the mid-90s,” Degabriele says. “It was the first time I saw top class jazz musicians playing live, and anyone who’s into jazz knows that the real magic happens on stage and not on record. The exhilaration from watching these giants play was huge, and each year’s edition ended with the same familiar feeling of wanting to do everything necessary to get as close as possible to that high level of musicianship to be able to experience even a fraction of that magic myself,” he adds.
For much of the same reasons, Axisa deems the festival to be a “valuable achievement for our local scene”, which “places Malta in an important position with respect to the international jazz scene”. “The fact that a large number of jazz enthusiasts come to Malta specifically for the festival is clear proof of its success and high standards. What’s more, some of these visitors often happen to be high-profile music journalists and bloggers focused on the jazz scene,” she adds.
While the covid-19 pandemic means that this year’s edition of the MJF had to be relegated to the online realm - though the situation is evolving, so watch this space - both Degabriele and Axisa are glad that its 30th anniversary year is getting at least some form of recognition. Not least because the festival itself has undergone some key changes and evolutions over the years. While neither Axisa nor Degabriele were huge fans of the MJF morphing into a more commercial version of itself during the 2006-2008 editions, both heartily welcome the fact that current artistic director Sandro Zerafa more than respects the event’s true legacy. But they also appreciate how Zerafa has allowed the festival to expand without compromising its roots, most notably by adding an element of education and outreach to the experience.
“The masterclasses [with acclaimed international musicians] are one important aspect of the festival; having such talented musicians sharing their knowledge with us is an opportunity which does not happen every day,” Axisa says, and Degabriele even goes as far as to say that “opening up the educational role of the festival” serves to plug a
pedagogical gap. “With the lack of serious jazz education in Malta, these encounters are incredibly valuable to any musician interested in the genre,” he says.
But it’s not all about basking in the particularities of musical technique. The MJF has also left an emotional mark on the musicians, who fondly recount memories and anecdotes. “Every year is special in some way or another, especially when some of my top favourite jazz artists have performed – Elaine Elias, Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling, Joao Bosco, Chick Corea, only to name a few,” Axisa says.
Degabriele agrees that “every festival edition has its memorable moments”.
“Most of these are snapshots too far away to recall in detail but which remain burnt in my memory forever. The intensity of Wayne Shorter’s band, slipping in the sides of the stage to get closer to Brian Blade’s drum kit, waiting for hours in the sun to watch a soundcheck by Brad Mehldau, the after parties with musicians who are still trying to figure out where in the world they just performed, and most of all getting ready to step up on that stage in Ta’ Liesse for a performance yourself - the only stage in the world that still gives me butterflies before a show!,” he says.
The Malta Jazz Festival - Online Edition is happening between the 13th & 18th July. For more information visit www.festivals.mt/mjf