The Malta Jazz Festival – an evolution into the soul of an island

Throughout its 30 years of stunning concerts, the Malta Jazz Festival has expanded from its base in Ta’ Liesse to include a number of equally show-stopping performances across Valletta and throughout the island.

Photo credit: Joe Smith

Sandro Zerafa tells Ramona Depares how the concept behind the festival has evolved and grown through the years.

Walk into Valletta any day this week, and you will immediately notice that something’s up, as the sound and the spirit of this year’s edition of the Malta Jazz Festival permeates the air. It’s the MJF’s – as fans refer to it – 30th birthday. And, despite that fact that the COVID-19 situation means that it’s an abridged version to the usual, the entire capital is definitely en fete.

It is impossible not to know that it is Malta Jazz Festival week, and it is a feather in artistic director Sandro Zerafa’s cap that the identity of the island’s longest-standing festival has become so deeply entranched in our collective psyche.  This, Zerafa says, was always part of the long-term vision that he nurtured for the festival.

“It was in 2011 that I first started organising the Jazz on the Fringe concerts, a series of satellite events in Valletta and in other venues on the island. The vibe of these events was very different from the main stage acts that we host in Ta’ Liesse, and they took the shape of small, informal concerts in bars and clubs, featuring local and international talent,” Zerafa explains.

The initiative, he adds, was born precisely because he wanted the identity of the festival to evolve beyond Ta’ Liesse. And by doing that, he hoped that it would catch a new and different audience too, one that wouldn’t necessarily be present in Ta’ Liesse.

“I was always bothered by the fact that, up till some years ago, when you entered Valletta during the festival week, you wouldn’t realize that there is a festival going on. I wanted people to feel its presence; I wanted the festival to permeate the city and the island. I also wanted to do something that would better involve the local jazz community. I wasn’t happy with the idea of the festival being confined to three nights of headliner concerts by the Grand Harbour,” Zerafa insists.

This expansion was not without its challenges, of course. Organising a festival with several satellite events around Malta involves a number of logistical issues, and the potential pitfalls could present a nightmare for any but the most determined. But Zerafa is nothing if not determined and, today, the Malta Jazz Festival fringe events also take place in locations such as Mdina and Cottonera.

Fast-forward some years, and the idea to permeate the island with jazz festival vibes certainly appears to have worked. The festival now reaches a wider audience and occupies an important role within the local jazz community. Attendees are no longer necessarily limited to die-hard jazz fans; instead, the festival is known for attracting those who appreciate live music, whatever the genre.

Hugo Lippi

Of course, picking fringe locations that are in keeping with the standard set by Ta’ Liesse is no joke. What does Zerafa look for in these alternative venues, and which are the criteria he takes into account when finalising them?

“It all depends on the style of music,” he says. “Recently, for example, I have been looking for venues which are more adapted to a certain kind of intimate, chamber jazz – the kind of music which is usually more suited to indoor venues such as small theatres and clubs. With this genre of music, using an outdoor venue, with the high level of noise pollution that a typical Maltese summer brings with it,  becomes problematic. So these are the sort of issues I tend to keep in mind. The decision to use Palazzo Vilhena and Notre Dame Gate were affected by these considerations, obviously.”

Jeff Ballard

This year’s reduced version of the festival actually increased the need to identify alternative locations, especially this year the concerts have moved away from the iconic Ta’ Liesse. The main concerts, instead, will be held in City Gate in front of the Parliament Steps.

“This venue is central and is quite intimate, ideal for the kind of acoustic jazz we will be presenting,” Zerafa says.

The mid-day concerts will be held in Freedom Square, in front of the Parliament, to keep things central.  The programme also includes a number of masterclasses at The Green Room in Pjazza Teatru Rjal and at the Phoenicia Hotel. But how badly is Zerafa missing Ta’ Liesse, which nowadays is synonymous with the festival?

Hetty Kate / Photo credit: Woodrow Wilson

“Ta’ Liesse is a unique venue, even though it has its logistical shortcomings. Due to the current situation this year’s live concerts were confirmed just a few weeks ago. Many acts were cancelled, and this is why we decided to do a mini, reduced version of the festival. Ta’ Liesse was certainly too complicated to handle in such short notice. It is a pity that Ta’ Liesse won’t feature for the 30th anniversary, of course. But it’s fine – the festival will be back to its former grandeur in 2021,” Zerafa promises.

The Malta Jazz Festival is organised by Festivals Malta and runs until the 18th July. A full programme of events is available here or on the official Facebook page.