Christian McBride’s New Jawn and Chick Corea Akoustic Trio create magic in Malta

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Joe-Smith---Christian-McBride-10

If Valletta's sun-baked limestone is a constant reminder of Malta's ancient history, then its jazz festival, much like some of its forward-thinking contemporary architecture, is a strong indication of its cultural ambitions, perhaps amplified this year by the city's status as Europe's 2018 Capital of Culture. The jazz festival is firmly established with a 27-year history, but with switched-on festival director Sandro Zerafa at the helm the opening free-entry concerts outside the stunning Renzo Piano-designed parliament building, felt like an acknowledgment of today's hot topics of openness and diversity. It paid off, with throngs of younger listeners packing the ascending stone steps to listen to promising Tel Aviv guitar talent Yotam Silberstein (below) and his band, which featured young Israeli drum star Daniel Dor, who stoked the band's folkloric jazz fires.

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While some jazz festivals are increasingly including non-jazz headliners, it was telling that the audiences engaged most willingly with the jazz heavyweights at the heart of the programme here. Indeed, the standout concert of Friday night's bill, was an imperiously raw display from bassist Christian McBride's New Jawn (pictured top). I'd last heard the bassist with his big band at Cheltenham, where he'd shown effortless command of this large unit, but his wilder instincts had been tamed by the reams of scored music. This showing on the festival's waterside main stage was a no-holds-barred improv session with some scorching work from fearsome young trumpeter Josh Evans and drum don Nasheet Waits, McBride grinning and grimacing as he worked between their crossfire. So spicy were these exchanges that Marcus Strickland's cool tenor and bass clarinet offered some sonic balm which he poured over the frenetic grooves. Yet, with another one McBride's Cheshire Cat grins, he introduced Waits' 'K-Kelli Sketch' as being "an audio portrait of his wife" – which made the ferocity of his sawing bowed strings all the more eyebrow-raising. Yet even this freeform freak-out didn't feel out of place thanks to the sheer booting confidence of McBride and his compadres – the depth of their empathy lending the music a tumbling yet authoritative momentum.

If the risk taking of McBride roused rather than riled the audience, then the more box ticking festival-friendly Afro-fusions of Bokanté seemed to trample on some of the artist-audience frisson McBride had achieved. Bokanté (above), the brainchild of Snarky Puppy bassist/bandleader, Michael League, nonetheless extend his immaculately executed polyrhythmic ploys with an African and Brazilian twist. The nine-piece also featuring fellow Puppy guitarist Chris McQueen, plus standout lapsteel master Roosevelt Collier, League himself playing what seemed to be a fretless bass lute that allowed him to perform bluesy low-end slides and slurs. The stand out band member was vocalist Malika Tirolien, who sailed over the triple-drum percussion grooves and quartet of guitarists, deftly integrating some vocal harmonies via her own mic-stand-mounted box of tricks that momentarily swelled her soaring vocals into choir-esque proportions. Maintaining her poise while navigating the twists and turns of the material Tirolien elevated this beyond pristine fusion into something far more soulful.

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The final night was an equal split between two sprightly septuagenarians: the 77-year-old Chick Corea and his Akoustic Trio (aove) and legendary Brazilian singer songwriter João Bosco, now 72. The former threesome are no strangers to big stages and top billings, but this was no cause for complacency as they dug deep into an imaginatively constructed set. Among the highlights were opener 'Morning Sprite', an uptempo swing-into-latin workout that showed the trio's empathetic interaction from the off, the pianist's virtuosity flowing with ease. Corea was intent on recasting old music in a new light as he spun counterpoint bass themes on a reharmonised take on Sammy Fain/Lew Brown's 'That Old Feeling', followed by an equally enlightening reworking of Ellington's 'In A Sentimental Mood', which sounded anything but dated. While there had been some dazzling bass breaks from John Patitucci and the fleet drumming from Dave Weckl, it was the latter who introduced the devilishly complex 'Lifeline' as, "a lot of fun to play". This fiendish 2001 Corea original came over like 'Spain' on steroids and even had bass behemoth Patitucci pushed close to his limits. It was a set that drew the biggest crowd who were held spellbound until the trio's final note.

Bosco's closing set added subtle funk and savvy jazz-inflected interplay to those infectious Rio de Genaro rhythms. Mining the songs to sublime depths, it was bassist Joao Batista and Bosco's guitar that formed the rhythmic core with lead guitar and drums orbiting with improvisational fire – their effortless funk pulling you mercilessly into the huge heart and soul of Bosco's music.

Proving that credibility and accessibility needn't be mutually exclusive, the idyllic setting, high-calibre programme and relaxed ambiance made for a memorable festival experience.

– Mike Flynn

– Photos by Joe Smith (McBride and Bocanté) and André Micallef (Chick Corea)