The Maltese are very proud of their jazz festival and with good reason; now in its 23rd year, the three-day event features some prime artists in a beautiful setting by the sea where the harbour lights twinkle, yachts are moored close by and kids sit on the cliffs high above. The acoustics are superb, the booze and food are cheap and, intriguingly, each night of the festival always starts with a homegrown act; mood-fusion trio Cusp channelled Steve Khan and John Scofield and impressed with a funky take on Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’, though local saxophonist Walter Vella’s band sounded a little overawed despite guitarist Romain Pilon’s astute accompaniment.
This year’s festival was certainly a treat for jazz piano fans – Robert Glasper’s enthralling, tightly structured set seemed to be based on various mutations of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly’ with a rapturously received cover of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ thrown in for good measure. Gerald Clayton was a major revelation, his endlessly inventive lines meshing perfectly with bassist Joe Sanders’ deep grooves. Vijay Iyer brought a studied, almost mathematical intensity to his set (superbly marshalled by drummer Tyshawn Sorey) with a backwards arrangement of Rod Temperton’s ‘Star Of The Story’ the highlight.
Headliner Michel Camilo’s virtuosity dazzled but was undone by some serious schmaltz on the ballads. Elsewhere Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman presented a superb update of the Pat Metheny 80/81 sound but it was Gregory Porter who maybe predictably provided the most memorable sights and sounds of the festival; new songs ‘No Love Dying’ and ‘Liquid Spirit’ already sound like classics and his delight at the surroundings was plain to see.