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Monday, July 29, 2019

Malta Jazz Festival 2019 - Nights July 19


(Review by Steve T)

On Friday evening the festival shifted to the side of the empire shaping harbour with its spectacular views of historic fortresses and palaces. At some point a luxury yacht pulled alongside and parked up for the evening. I speculated whether, if they could afford a yacht they could afford the entrance fee.
 
Each of the two nights here opened with a Maltese group and Friday was a guitar trio led by drummer William Smith. Clearly the Maltese know that jazz guitar is in the ascendancy again and this was a highly enjoyable set with all three young musicians acquitting themselves brilliantly with their original compositions and improvisational skills.

Although sold out, there were still seats unoccupied at this point, but the surrounding area, punctuated with food stalls, a beer tent and cocktail bar, was buzzing with activity and anticipation.


By the time Chucho Valdez took to the stage, everyone was in their seat. At seventy seven, he's a giant of a man, looking dapper in matching white beret and trousers, a pianist of formidable technique. The Monk influence seemed less prevalent than on the album and I actually preferred the whole thing live. 

A quintet featuring piano, bass and three people on percussion, including one on the sacred bata drums rather than kit, is a dream ticket for me, and I suspect many Maltese.

Some thought this the gig of the festival.    

To these ears, Weather Report were one of the great moments in C20th music, transcending time and genre. Few would argue the final years - featuring Omar Hakim - were less prodigious than their previous output, but even their least successful albums are better than most other things. When main man Josef Zawinul recruited Hakim, he was keen to move the focus of the rhythm section from bass to drums, so he became a crucial part of their new direction. 

He arrived in Malta with a genuine all-star band called Ozmosys, featuring his wife, acclaimed keyboardist Rachel Z; the figurehead of the recent jazz guitar surge, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and bass player Linley Marthe, described by Zawinul as the greatest in the world, and he should know.  

Hakim himself has played with Miles, Gil Evans, Herbie, Marcus Miller, Benson, Scofield, Sanborn, Grover, Ramsey Lewis, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, Bryan Ferry, Bowie, Madonna, Kate Bush, Daft Punk, Dire Straits, Sting and loads more jazz artists and popstars.  
Fireworks are a nightly event in Valletta in summer and, while Hakim's tenure in Weather Report was half a decade after Black Market, he'll know it well and will likely have played it, so I wondered if he was having flashbacks of the explosions during the coda of one of their most celebrated pieces. 

His drumming never let up throughout the set, which was fusion through and through from start to finish, and I've always thought a powerful drummer an essential ingredient in jazz-rock. 

Rachel Z was quite extraordinary, whether playing piano or unashamed seventies/eighties synthesizer’s sounds. She also has a bit of the hippy about her. 

Marthe was funky and flamboyant and his pair of solos drew perhaps the greatest applause. 

Kurt will have silenced any doubters - and I may have been one of them - that he's THE guitarist of his generation; the most significant jazz guitarist since Metheny, and possibly even McLaughlin. Not as rocky as the jazz-rock guitarists, like McLaughlin, Coryell and Stern, nor as traditional sounding as Christian, Wes and Benson. Solid body guitars seem to be the order of the day amongst the major players, though this is likely as much about aesthetics and making a statement.

One piece sounded like something I vaguely recognise from one of the Weather Report albums he played on and there was a take on a Foo Fighters song - mercifully unrecognisable - as, he announced, he and Rachel are wont to reinterpret songs by rock bands. 

The whole thing was absolutely magnificent and I could have merrily stayed there all night, though many seats had been vacated as we headed towards 1:00am and beyond.

One of the greatest drummers I've ever seen and one of the greatest guitarists I've ever seen, not to mention world class pianist and bass player; not for the first time, I wondered if life could possibly get better than this. The good news is there's an album due later in the year and they're playing the London Jazz Festival in November.        
Steve T

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