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Capturing the Malta Jazz Festival

Esperenza Spalding

Festivals Malta has responded to the exigencies of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic by organising an online edition of the Malta Jazz Festival, which will tap into the event’s rich history by taking on a retrospective bent.

To say that Maltese photographer Joe P. Smith has become synonymous with the Malta Jazz Festival would be something of an understatement. Literally engaged with his task since the annual festival’s inception at the tail-end of the last century, Joe has had the privilege of photographing some of the most renowned and legendary jazz musicians who have graced the now-iconic stage at Ta’ Liesse, Valletta from 1991 onwards.

“I have not missed an edition since 1991 – except for 2006-2008 when both format and venue shifted to a more commercial model – and I always leave the third week of July free from any commitments and travel so that I will be able to be present,” Joe says.

John Scofield

However, this year’s edition will inevitably herald another rare break in tradition for Joe and his ilk, as well as the musicians whose on-stage efforts they have so ably depicted over the decades. Thankfully, Festivals Malta has responded to the exigencies of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic by organising an online edition of the Malta Jazz Festival, which will tap into the event’s rich history by taking on a retrospective bent.

“Personally, I will greatly miss this important annual fixture in my photographic journey, but we also must acknowledge how this virus has played havoc with many aspects of our lives. Through an online presence one can at least still enjoy the emotions and good vibes that this musical genre can convey. A trip down memory lane can make us look back and appreciate the musical genius that has graced our harbourfront during the years,” Joe says.

But the photographer – along with some of his fellow travellers in this particular vocation – will not simply be sitting through the online festival. Audiences can look forward to a whirlwind exhibition of photography and painting - ‘Notes From the Harbour’ that has documented the Malta Jazz Festival’s long 30-year trajectory. Assembling a selection of photographic works by Darrin Zammit Lupi, Pierre Stafrace, Therese Debono and of course Joe P. Smith himself, along with ‘in situ’ paintings by Jeni Caruana and the late Olaug Vethal, the visual showcase will serve as a testament to the festival’s wide-ranging cultural legacy. The virtual exhibition will be available on the Malta Jazz Festival website from the 13th of July until the end of August.

It is also, of course, an excellent opportunity for photographers like Joe to reflect on the creative, but also emotional and anecdotal, legacy of this regular appointment. Claiming that he’s always been an avid jazz fan and that the prospect of photographing the very first edition of the festival in 1991 came with no small measure of excitement, Joe also admits to feeling some trepidation at the very beginning.

“I hate crowds, and I had never photographed jazz concerts before, so I was not fully energised ahead of the event, so to speak. But the prospect of photographing legends like Chick Corea, Elvin Jones and Michel Petrucciani did give me butterflies…” When an advertising agency asked Joe to take some promotional shots for a sponsor, the build-up to the event started to become a legitimate source of excitement. He explains how, “due to promotional requirements”, the bulk of his photos for that first edition had to be done in colour, but he did sneak in some black and white shots for his own personal collection – a practice that would mark his aesthetic presence for many years to come.

“These were film and darkroom days, and I was sort of elated when I saw the results,” Joe says, explaining how the monochrome treatment is particularly apt at capturing the dynamics and nuances of jazz performance, because “the compression of tones echoes the compression of musical notes”.

“The stygian darkness brings to the fore the effort, pain and facial expressions as the performers go through the act of improvisation. The inclusion of negative spaces around the performers accentuates their creative act, and provides space where they can let their emotions free,” Joe adds.

Such a great end-result is achieved through no small amount of focus and effort, though they can result in great stories to tell after the fact, and Joe recounts an unforgettable moment from the Malta Jazz Festival’s first edition.

“The legendary Chick Corea was on the stage. I was roaming backstage in search of that ‘different’ shot. I climbed two stairs leading onto the stage and saw this beautiful back-lit image of Chick sitting at the piano and the Valletta bastions in the background…” Joe was, however, understandably barred from approaching the stage.

Brad Mehldau Trio (2009) acrylic on gesso paper by Jeni Caruana

“But at that moment, Chick’s manager passed by and I plucked up the courage to ask him if I could cross the threshold for just one shot. He gladly consented.” Joe got his shot, but this incurred the wrath of the stage manager, who came stampeding in his direction.

“He certainly gave me a piece of his mind, saying I was jeopardising his position! I kept my cool and pointed to Chick’s manager and said: “You can speak to him”. That resolved it.”

The Malta Jazz Festival - Online Edition is happening between the 13th & 18th July. Notes From the Harbour - Virtual Exhibition will be open between the 13th July and the 31st of August 2020. For more information visit



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