Sounds of the 13th Annual Malta Jazz Festival


The flight was grueling, hopping from Oakland to one airport to another, however I was so excited I hardly slept. In fact I finished the whole book of Catch Me If You Can by the time we landed in Malta. The next day, Malta time, we got up to see a bright and sunny day. The festival was in the evening. I was glad, because that left us some time to explore, and the evening time was the best time. The heat had died down, but still warm. One can wear summer dresses through the night. Very much unlike the foggy and chilly summers of San Francisco where you need a winter coat to keep warm.The audience

The festival was in Valetta, the capital city of Malta, on the Northern shore. The area that was set aside for the festival has a huge wall 50 or 60 feet high on one side (see photo at right) and the harbor is on the other. In fact, if you have a boat, you can dock right there and see the show for free. Looks like there was a residential area above this wall, and we saw people sitting on top of this wall, feet dangling, enjoying themselves too. Across the harbor is the historical cities of Kalkara, Vittoriosa and Senglea where castle-like structures proudly stand. The festival started on time, but didn't end on time, just because the audience demanded encore performances from each group. The attendance was great. Half of the area had chairs. If you come early, you can find a seat, otherwise, you can stand at the other half of this long and wide walkway, and dance all night. Guessing at the amount of people who tried to pack close to the stage, there must had been more than a thousand people for each of the evenings. I was happy to see the amount of people there because the Jazz festival was not the only festival in Malta that weekend.

My report to our readers will be in two segments: the first one is a review of the music of the Jazz festival and the second will be of my reflection of Malta itself which will appear in our September edition of Jazz Now.

The Jazz Festival

The festival was sponsored by Cisk Export, Vadafone, The American Center Embassy of the United States of America - Malta, the Le Meridien Phoenicia, the Ministry for Youth and the Arts of Malta, and of course, our sponsor, the Malta Tourist Authorities. Take a look at the Malta site. It tells you a lot about Malta and all that's happening' through the year.

Three evenings of music at this festival, and three different groups each night. The stage is well-lit with colorful lights. The sound was good; you could hear it well beyond the entrance. Maybe the wall on the left side enhanced the projection of the sound.

Friday, July 18th

Dominic Gala GroupWhen we got to the festival Friday night, the group, Dominic Galea's Heritage had already started playing. Dominic Galea, on piano, was joined by Sammy Murgo on sax; Walter Vella on sax and flute; Roger Azzopardi on trumpet, Mario Aquilina on bass; Noel Grech on drums and Alex Debono on percussion. A well-seasoned group; straight ahead Jazz. Galea didn't introduce the tunes, but I heard beautiful renditions of a ballad on flute and muted trumpet. Mrugo's sax was pure in tone. Ah, they played "Footprints" which I recognized. Vella played a fast and furious segment on his soprano bass for this piece. Galea skillfully linked the group together; he was the glue of the group. Their performance was greatly approved by the audience who yelled for more.

The harbor and the audienceThe age of the audience spread out, from as young as eight or nine, accompanied by parents, and the silver-haired. Unlike Jazz festivals in the United States, there were a lot of young people, actually mostly younger folks in their twenties and thirties. Also, they were from all over the world. I met a family from France: the father is a patent lawyer there. I met a family from Switzerland: father and mother and two teenage girls. A young man from Germany. Our publisher, met two Americans, a sale-person, and a military man stationed in Italy. Then there were three ladies painting the scene from the side line. They picked something on stage and painted each performance. Their paintings would be completed by the time each group finished their performance. It was interesting to see them go at it.

Dianne Reeves GroupDianne Reeves came with pianist Peter Martin, Reuben Rogers, bass; and Greg Hutchinson on percussion. She improvised, singing along, telling the audience how happy she was to be in Malta. Peter Martin had a wonderful right hand, and the whole rhythm section ably accompanied Reeves. Hutchinson was busy on the drums, but was never overpowering. Reeves did a mixture of gospel and blues. She introduced her sidemen by singing their names.

CubanisimoCubanisimo is a 15-piece band from Cuba. Jesus Alemany is the leader and he plays trumpet. Carlos Alvarez on trombone, Rolando Perez on alto sax, Jorge Maza on tenor sax, baritone sax and flute. Peruchin Jr. on piano, Rolo Martinez, Jesus Cantero and Fernando Ferrer were the vocalists. Roberto Riveron on bass; Pablosky Rosales on tres, Eduardo Lavoy on bongos, and percussion, and Jorge Torres on congas. Pepe Espinosa on timbales, and Eduardo Rodriguez on trumpet. They were so energetic and the music was so exciting that people were swinging in their seats or dancing in the isle. Pianist, Peruchin, Jr. smoked his solos. The congas and bongos were showing off their techniques, competing with each other. They all looked like they were having fun and so were the audience. We didn't stay until the end because we were tired and our driver had been waiting.

Saturday, July 19th

Coco YorkThe second night was opened by Coco York, vocal, and Michael del Ferro on piano and one of the major organizers of this event, Charles Gatt on drums. Emanuel Brunet was on bass. Before Coco York came on stage, Michael del Ferro and Charles Gatt jazzed up three well known Arias from different operas. Familiar sounds but with interesting treatment that was very refreshing. del Ferro was gentle and expressive. He was aptly accompanied by the light and delicate touches of Charles Gatt. Somebody on a sail boat approved, and he honked the horn.

Coco York started with a spiritual, then she went into "Ain't Misbehaving," "Love for Sale," a bluesy "Unchain My Heart," belching away, "My Funny Valentine," and "Bye Bye Blackbird." She has a wide range, and can do a variety of styles, from spiritual to Jazz to blues. At times, she tightens her vocal chords for unusual effects. She showed that she could do them all. She tried to get the audience involved by asking the audience to imitate her. It nervously complied, and had fun attempting the vocal gymnastic.

Roberto Juan RodriguezAnother Cuban group, Septeto Roberto Juan Rodriguez, was led by drummer Roberto Juan Rodriguez (photo at right). David Krakauer was on clarinet, Bernard Minoso on bass. Interestingly there was a violin, played by Megumi Okura; cello played by Mary Adele Woolen (the only two lady-instrumentalists of the festival); accordion was played by Theodore Ted Reichman and tuba played by Marcus Rojas. There was also a trombone player who offered an exciting solo on the piece "Hadida" (spelling may not be correct), but he wasn't listed in the program.

Megumi Okura and Mary Adele WootenInteresting instrumentation creates interesting sounds. The first piece they performed started with the accordion had an East Indian sound, but it was then accompanied by a Salsa clevé beat. The accordion substituted the keyboard and the clarinet, which liked to sustain on high notes, had a snake charmer effect.

The second piece had a Salsa feel. The bass was heavy and I could not hear the violin and cello. They were weaker instruments anyway, and I think the sound technician had a little problem with the equipment.

The fourth piece have the cello a beautiful, though too short, solo. The violin solo was rousing, showing intensity and technique. The clarinet tried to match. However, the bass got a little monotonous on a three-note phrase.

The band had an interesting sound. No standards that I know of; maybe all original pieces, but not without excitement. They kept us tapping our toes and bopping our heads. Rodriguez mentioned that he grew up in Cuba, Miami and New York and drew a lot of his sounds from the Jewish culture.

The encore piece started with a drum solo in a complicated rhythmic pattern in 6/8 time. This piece allowed each instrument to shine. None wanted to be out performed. The violinist showed her technical prowess in her solo that pleased the crowd. Trombonist couldn't let the young girl out played him, and Reichman grabbed the accordion to follow. Rodriguez took over from the bass, who was carrying the steady 6/8 pattern, with his bass drum in yet another drum solo, before the whole group came back to the head at his signal for a conclusion, which sent the audience to its feet.

Wayne ShorterThe first thing that I noticed of the Wayne Shorter group was that John Patitucci danced with his bass and John Pattitucci's music danced. Brian Blade was in tune with Pattitucci's dancing and he danced along. At first, Danilo Perez was distracted by the not too perfect sound from one of the monitors and had to leave the piano to talk to the technician about it. Not until he ignored the problem was he able to run along and catch up with his band mates. Perez had progressed since we last saw him in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are happy to see him now playing with the best. Tonight, he seemed to be in charge. He played parallel with Patitucci while Shorter floated on top. The rhythm section was tight. It was amazing to see how Brian Blade and Patitucci played the same notes sometimes, that is, in exact same rhythm together. The sound system again had a little problem and it rung in our ears at times. It didn't seem to bother Shorter a bit, and he showed no emotion, but the audience and Perez were not too happy. The technician tried to compensate and ended up with the piano, bass and drums over powering Shorter's sax, as if it was an after thought.

Brian BladeThe sound was finally adjusted by the second piece. They were not distracted anymore. One could now hear the cohesiveness of the group and they sounded as one. Perez and Shorter blended well together on this piece which had a melodic line that reminded me of a nursery rhyme. Blade's percussion was gentle and intricate. Perez had a counter-rhythmic pattern against the bass line who was actually keeping the beat. Blade was accentuating the phrases with different sounds of his instruments instead of just keeping time (photo at right). Then the bass turned to one repeated note while Perez kept a repeated phrase in his left hand. Shorter's tenor kept a slow melodic line above the others. It was very interesting to see and hear their interaction which was forever changing. They made the rhythm section rhythmic with Perez strumming the strings inside the piano, and Petitucci continuously hitting the finger board of his bass.

The music continued in this fashion well into the night. It was warm with a gentle breeze. The sky was clear. The audience absorbed every bit of the sound with great enthusiasm and delight.

Sunday, July 20th

Going to the festival took a long time Sunday. The traffic was horrendous. There were other festivals going on around town. Fire works were everywhere. When I saw that the festival ground was not as crowded as previous nights, I was a little concern. Fortunately, the area did fill up again. Maybe the rest of the audience was caught in the traffic like we were. I was very happy to see the crowd, and the same folks that I met the previous night. In the U.S., any other event or festival would dilute the attendance to a Jazz festival.

Sandro Zerafa, Emmanuel Brunet, Sebastian Llado and David Gerogelet

 SaSandro Zerafa and Emmanuel Brunet

 Sebastian Llado

 David Georgelet

Sunday evening's portion of the festival was opened by the Sandro Zerafa's Quartet, with Sandro Zerafa on guitar, Emmanuel Brunet on acoustic bass, Sebastian Llado on trombone and David Georgelet on drums (photos above). This is a Maltese group with Zerafa being a graduate of the University of Malta. This was one group that was on the advant garde side. The sound was "out there," but to me, it was tolerable and understandable. The group was in-sync with each other. Zerafa introduced his group in Maltese, so I'll have to depend on the accurateness of the program for their names. A ballad was followed by a couple of high energy pieces; quite sensitive and in a groove. The basis was of straight ahead Jazz but new sound.

Jorge Ben Jor groupJorge Ben Jor is one of the most popular group nowadays in Brazil, I was told, by the wife of the Swiss couple, who is originally from Brazil. She was so excited to see the group that she and one of her daughters left their seats to go dancing in the isles and eventually, both of them were invited to the stage to dance. Jorge Ben Jor, who plays guitar and is the main vocalist, brought with him a big group of musicians (photo at right). They all wore white. The two persons in the band who wore berets had red ones on. This sure was dance music. More funk than Jazz to me. The program said, "Jorge Ben's music holds a unique role in the Brazilian scene, due to the merging of new elements in his swinging mix and to the way he plays the guitar, revealing his appreciation of sold music and North American funk, yet incorporating the influence of African and Arabian music, legacy of his Ethiopian mother." The audience was wild. By this time, the side of ground with the standing audience was filled up again. The people were pretty packed against each other, and they tried to dance in their little space. They cried for an encore, which lasted another thirty minutes. The maracas player invited a few girls to dance up on the stage and they all enthusiastically complied. This had become a huge dancing party.

Tania MariaTania Maria and the Viva Brazil Quartet was the last group for the festival. Maria played the piano as well as the keyboard. Viva Brazil was made up of Mestre Carneiro on percussion, Luiz Augusto Cavani on drums and Mark Bertaux on bass. They offered complicated and exciting rhythms. The duet between Carneiro and Cavani was exceptionally extensive and powerful. But Tania Maria can be compassionate as well. A well-seasoned performer who could be emotional and touching in her singing and beautiful and interesting in her playing. The percussionist was wonderful to watch with all his "toys." Drums, big and small, hit by hands or mallets, high, medium or low sound. It was very intriguing.

We had to bid farewell to Tania Maria's fiery hair and the beautiful surrounding of the festival earlier than we wanted to so we could catch a couple hours of sleep before our long flight home.

My new found friends and I agree, the Malta Festival is a great festival. One of the reasons is that the size is perfect. Unlike the Montreaux, as I was told, there are so many people there, that if you don't flow with the crowd, you may be trampled. Unlike the Monterey Festival here back home, and the North Sea, there are so many acts that you don't know which one you want to miss. The Malta Festival allows the audience to hear all of it without having to compromise. The stage is high enough for all to see. The sound is loud enough for all to hear. Yet if you are up front, you are not blasted away. The selection of these excellent bands offer a good variety of music for all to enjoy.

We had a great time at the Malta Festival and we hope we will have other opportunities to return. Our trip was arranged by Meghan Flanagan of Keating Public Relations.


by Stella Cheung Houston

Coming in the September edition of Jazz Now is the "Sights of Malta."

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