30 years of jazz – the journey from Ta’ Liesse to a nationwide festival

Photo credit: Patrick Fenech

When the Malta Jazz Festival was born back in 1990, its identity was purely tied to Ta’ Liesse, almost a special secret for those in the know who would make the yearly pilgrimage down to the city’s Grand Harbour for a few days of pure jazz.

Fast-forward 30 years and, while Ta’ Liesse is certainly synonymous with the festival, an iconic jazz landmark, the festival itself has grown and evolved into a nationwide event that is as eagerly sought after by jazz aficionados as it is by all who enjoy live music. The pilgrims come from far and wide, eager to enjoy live concerts by some of the biggest legends of the genre, with the likes of Paul Bley, Elvin Jones, Betty Carter, Wallace Roney, Lee Konitz, , McCoy Tyner and many others having headlined over the years.

And, the Malta Jazz Festival has grown from the three main concerts in Ta’ Liesse to a plethora of fringe events, free masterclasses and other impromptu concerts that take place across the capital and have even spread to other locations across the island.

An achievement that makes Artistic Director Sandro Zerafa, who succeeded Charles ic-City Gatt at the helm in 2009, proud.

Sandro Zerafa / Photo credit: Joe Smith

“For many years, walking through Valletta one wouldn’t know that there was a jazz festival going on. But I wanted the festival to permeate the city, for people to feel its presence across the capital. And I especially wanted it to better involve the local jazz community,” Sandro starts out, when I ask him about his initial vision upon first taking over the direction of the festival.

It is easy to see that, in this vision, Sandro has certainly succeeded as the festival has now evolved into a week-long event full of activities featuring masterclasses, mid-day concerts, a jam session, exhibitions and even collaborations between the local and international musicians.

Throughout the decades, the festival has also become synonymous with the biggest and most legendary names. Anyone who’s anyone on the international jazz circuit has graced the Malta Jazz Festival main stage at one time or another. From McCoy Tyner to Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Paul Bley, Elvin Jones, Betty Carter, Wallace Roney, Lee Konitz… all the great have stepped up on the Ta’ Liesse stage, much to the delight of the Maltese and international audience. Which, of all these myriad performances, holds a special place in Sandro’s heart – and why?

“I particularly cherish the Brad Mehldau performance in 2009. It was also my first festival as a director, and there was a lot of anticipation since it was the festival’s comeback after a three year hiatus. Brad’s performance had a sort of quiet religious intensity that rose above everything else,” Sandro says, adding that he also has a dear memory of the performance by Children of the Light, the trio made up of Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade.

Brad Mehldau Trio / painting by Jeni Caruana

“Their organic interplay was on a stratospheric level,” Sandro says with a hint of nostalgia.

Of course, standout moments there have been plenty – even from before Sandro’s days as artistic director. He recounts how, as a younger musician, he would be invited to play at the festival by Charles Gatt, often opening for some real heavyweights.

“It was scary and surreal. I remember playing on a floating barge not far from the main stage, opening for Joshua Redman. My playing was a bit off, and the barge was swaying because of some cruise liner. Call it stage fright coupled with sea-sickness, not a fantastic combination. Still a great experience and when, I left Malta in 1998, coming back to play at Ta’ Liesse was always sacred,” he tells me.

Now, this year sees an abridged version of the Malta Jazz Festival marking the 30th anniversary celebrations amidst COVID-19 precautions. What were the biggest challenges making Malta Jazz Festival 2020 happen?

“Well, we are living in times of uncertainty and, up till a few weeks ago we were not sure about the possibility of having live events. We were putting all our energy into the online version of the festival, which by the way, will still be happening. I am proud to say that we are one of the few European festivals which managed to maintain some concert activity,” Sandro explains.

Sadly, the headliners announced earlier this year will not be physically making it to the festival after all European tours were cancelled. However, Sandro decided to adapt and carry on with an abridged version and a beautiful line-up of local and Europe-based artists.

“The challenges were mainly logistical ones related to limited flight schedules and finding the right venue. There was also the stress of last-minute organisation, including finding artists available to perform,” he says with a smile.

The good news, however, is that this year’s edition, too, continues the tradition of including satellite events around the capital and beyond and the programme includes a series of evening concerts at Freedom Square, in front of the Parliament Steps

“We will also have an exhibition of photos and memorablia from the festival running at the Phoenicia during the festival week. Between July 13 and 18 we will have our series of mid-day concerts featuring mostly local talent. And, this year we are happy to be having some great musicians, including Jeff Ballard and Jonathan Kreisberg, deliver a series of masterclasses, some of which will be streamed online,” Sandro says.

There will also be other events happening at the Green Room in Pjazza Teatru Rjal and at the Phoenicia Hotel. Parallel to all this, a virtual photographic exhibition and broadcasts of past concerts from the archives will be accessible on the Malta Jazz Festival website. Maybe, the abdridged version is not so abridged after all!

The Malta Jazz Festival is organised by Festivals Malta and takes place between July 13 and 18. For a full programme see the Facebook page or Festivals Malta’s official website.

This content was supplied by Festivals Malta / text by Ramona Depares