The annual Malta Jazz Festival is just one highlight visitors to Valletta can enjoy in a programme of events during the island’s year as European Capital of Culture. Larry Pryce reports.
It was jazz that first brought me to the sunny Mediterranean island of Malta in 2012 and it is jazz and the lead up to Valletta’s inauguration as European Capital of Culture 2018 that brings me back. The Malta Jazz Festival, now in its 28th year, is held each July and is among the most unique and accessible events of its kind in the world.
Located down by the water’s edge at Valletta’s Grand Harbour in the stunning open-air surrounds of Ta Liesse, the festival’s exciting programme of contemporary jazz, world and Latin rhythms showcases a range of international names and local performers.
The heat of the day still lingers as I join the growing crowds of visitors and locals beneath the imposing stone ramparts of Ta Liesse in anticipation of another great night of music at the Malta Jazz Festival 2017. Lines of food stalls provide welcome temptation, some selling cold beers and glasses of decent Maltese wine for a few euros, others offering plates of fragrant rabbit stew and imquaret, the delicious date and clove filled pastries as we make our way towards the stage.
As the first chords from the legendary guitarist Al Di Meola ring out, a welcome breeze rises like a deep sigh across the water, the gentle slapping of the waves making the lights of the moored boats move as if in time to the music. We watch appreciatively as Di Meola’s World Sinfonia, the headline act on the final night of the festival, performs an atmospheric set of Latin-infused jazz along with music from the Beatles and Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla.
A pioneer in blending world and other genres with jazz, Di Meola’s music often sees him revisiting the music of Lennon & McCartney.
“I really credit the Beatles for the reason why I play guitar,” he explains. “That was a major catalyst for me to want to learn music, so their impact was pretty strong.” His moving interpretation of Blackbird brings a buzz of approval from the crowd.
Saturday evening is yet another highlight of so many during the three-day festival. The night before, we’d listened to Maltese pianist Joe Debono and his trio and watched the much-lauded percussive skills of Mark Guiliana, the drummer on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, before Grammy award-winning trumpeter, pianist and composer, Nicholas Payton, closed the evening, blending bebop, swing and blues with hip-hop, New Orleans and Afro-Caribbean rhythms into a virtuoso sound that is his alone.
There is plenty of jazz away from the festival stage too. The fringe plays an increasingly important role, with jam sessions, concerts and workshops all taking place in the week leading up to the main festival. The first night of the 2017 festival sees the city thronged with people enjoying French guitarist Romain Pilon and his trio playing by the City Gate, Maltese singer Nadine Axisa and her band performing inside the open-air theatre Rjal and Brazilian percussionist Munir Hossn and his group appearing in front of the law courts.
All the concerts are free and supported by the Valletta 2018 Foundation. As Sandro Zerafa, the festival’s artistic director points out: “The Jazz Festival is constantly evolving, reaching out beyond Ta Liesse, branching out to Valletta’s streets and I want the event to become even more accessible, spreading its wings and hitting the streets in preparation for Valletta.
"That is why we started doing these free concerts, putting on the masterclasses and jam sessions. These fringe activities will be expanded even further in 2018 with a photographic exhibition, lunchtime concerts and a special Franco-Maltese collaboration featuring young musicians.”
Indeed, among the associated fringe events at this year’s festival, which takes place from July 16-21, will be performances at Valletta’s newest jazz venue, Offbeat, in Merchant Street, a small New York-style club run by pianist Joe Debono.
The Malta Jazz Festival is, however, just one of more than 400 cultural events taking place during 2018, with everything from music and film festivals, art exhibitions and fashion weeks to wine and food fairs on offer.
What’s more, the city itself boasts Unesco World Heritage Site status and has a rich military history together with some of Europe’s best architecture.
This ranges from the Baroque opulence of the Co-Cathedral of St John and the historical Teatro Manuel, one of Europe’s oldest working theatres, to the imposing new City Gate and Parliament Building designed by Shard architect Renzo Piano and the Upper Barrakka Gardens with its spectacular views over the Grand Harbour.
The grid layout of the city makes it easy to explore the grand limestone palaces, museums and galleries and enjoy the cafe society feel of the many new restaurants, bars and boutique hotels that have sprung up amid the narrow streets. 2017 was a year of restoration in Valletta, as the capital fast-forwarded to its 2018 European Capital of Culture role and Malta’s first five-star luxury hotel, the Art Deco-influenced Hotel Phoenicia, joined in the fun.
The hotel first opened its doors in 1947, quickly becoming the place to be seen at and to stay in with its classic elegance and refined glamour, which has been upgraded in time for the 2018 celebrations.
Rob Bruno, director of sales and marketing at the Phoenicia, explains some of the changes.
“This was definitely more of a restoration than a refurbishment.” he points out. “On the corporate side, we are attracting some higherprofile guests but we have not outpriced ourselves for the many loyal repeat guests who continue to return year after year.”
With more than 40% of these guests coming from the UK in 2017 and even more expected this year, I ask Bruno what he thinks makes the Phoenicia such a special property.
“The customer experience,” he says. “This has to be a truly fivestar- plus experience and is enhanced through the quality of our staff both old and new – genuine Maltese hospitality in a luxury surrounding.”
Book it: Classic Collection offers four nights’ B&B at Hotel Phoenicia from £858pp based on two sharing, including Air Malta flights from Gatwick and private transfers. Departing July 19, 2018.