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Top names for revival of jazz festival in Valletta

Brad Mehldau Trio

Brad Mehldau Trio

The upcoming Malta Jazz Festival can be summed up in a few words, according to its new artistic director: "Quality, eclecticism... and a return to jazz," having deviated from the original concept over the last three years.

Following a hiatus, it is returning with a "back-to-the-roots" approach and a "clean, straight-ahead" jazz line-up, under the artistic direction of Sandro Zerafa.

For the Paris-based jazz guitarist and composer, the festival's educational element is important - without compromising the appeal.

"I would like the Maltese to be more exposed to this art form, which is lacking on the cultural calendar. Jazz is rare on the local scene and needs to be introduced in an appealing way."

In fact, Mr Zerafa's challenge and personal stamp is "to find the right equilibrium between music that is less appealing and music that has a wider audience, while still falling within the jazz framework".

The festival's last three editions, which had been passed into private hands, had gone "off track" and it needed to get back onto the rails, Mr Zerafa said.

Last September, it was announced that the annual Malta Rock and Jazz Festival would be losing the "rock" again and returning to the original organiser, the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, in the hope of winning back jazz aficionados.

"Jazz embraces many influences and has to be presented in its varying facets, of course without any artistic compromises," said Mr Zerafa.

And that is what the line-up intends to do, promising a unique three days of world-class jazz.

The festival, scheduled for July 16-18, will include some of the biggest names in the contemporary jazz scene: The opening act will be Brad Mehldau, one of the most influential jazz pianists of the last 20 years. Considered to be one of the highlights, his contribution should return Malta to its former prestigious position on the European jazz festival circuit.

For those less familiar with jazz, but into Latin music, the festival will offer the salsa and Afro-Cuban touch of Grammy-Award-winning, virtuoso flutist, Orlando Maraca Valle.

Guitar legend John Scofield, a household name, will return to the festival with his latest project The Piety Street Band, which rediscovers his roots and delivers music that is tinged with R & B, blues and gospel flavours.

The festival will be closed by award-winning Miguel Zenon, the "rising star" of the alto saxophone and one of the leading voices on the New York jazz scene, following bossa nova performances by Brazilian singer and pianist Eliane Elias, as well as jazz guitar renditions by Kurt Rosenwinkel accompanied by Eric Revis and Rodney Green.

Local talent will be present in the form of Dominic Galea and Oliver Degabriele's trios. The latter will be joined by vocalist Alison Galea of Beangrowers fame, while Mr Galea will present a new set of compositions for the first time.

Both will also perform with foreign musicians in line with the festival's aim to encourage interaction between the local and overseas jazz scenes, Mr Zerafa said.

Malta did not have a real jazz scene, he continued. Despite good musicians, there was a lack of regular concerts, meaning the public was not used to the art form.

This year's Jazz Festival will also return to its home at Ta' Liesse in Valletta, where it was born in 1990 with a line-up of some of the best jazz exponents of the time, including Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Yellowjackets.

Over the years, it featured other international jazz legends but its reputation was not just built on that, MCCA chairman Adrian Mamo said.

The unique location, offering breathtaking views of Grand Harbour, was part of the mix, he said, quoting Chick Corea as having exclaimed that he had never "performed in a postcard before".

Despite all these ingredients, however, the economic impact of a recession was being felt and sponsorship was not as readily available.

"If anyone is passionate about jazz, now is the time to show it," he appealed, hoping that audiences would help keep the Jazz Festival alive.

The council was planning to turn it into more of a cultural event, with the "bigger picture" including intellectual debates and enrichment classes.

Tickets cost €15 for one night but buying two means the third night is free. Students and senior citizens are being charged €12 for one night and €24 for three; while a novel gold area - front-row seating - costs €30, €45 and €60 for one, two or three nights respectively.

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