Soweto Kinch and Kurt Elling hit the heights at the Malta Jazz Festival

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Soweto Kinch

Soweto Kinch’s gig is nearing its climax when he finds himself playing between two implacable walls. The fortress city ramparts from which passing Maltese look down like a Greek chorus have been there all along. Now a glinting, leviathan cruise ship is also passing by the harbour-side stage in the dark, Kinch’s sax surely heard on its distant top deck.

It’s a jaw-dropping, surreal sight, suiting a festival defined by its location at baroque Valletta’s ocean edge, ceaseless sultry heat, and surprising, stimulating music. Kinch is the penultimate act on its final, fourth night. Maybe taken for granted back home, this performance is explosive ammunition for his rapped contention that he “still ain’t crossed over where I’m supposed to be.” Shabaka Hutchings is a contrastingly introspective sax in his current quartet, but Kinch is the fierce, funny, engaging leader. During ‘Vacuum’, his sax scrabbles and pecks, as if clamouring against a claustrophobic ceiling. On ‘Sweeping Changes’, he gives a thrilling ululation over tough, driving rhythms, screaming against limits. He and Hutchings sound as if they’re bursting through a series of invisible walls. Rapping and dancing, Kinch ignores musical barriers.

Back on Thursday’s opening night, Kurt Elling’s headline slot draws the short straw of dwindling, work-day crowds. “I’m beat down to a bloody pulp,” he confesses, as he nears the end of his latest world tour. Running on fumes Elling may be, but the energy this Chicago pro dredges lets him range from muscular scat to the straight, strong Scots ballad-singing of ‘Loch Tay Boat Song’. His happy, masculine swagger and soulfully swinging band are at their best. Chucho Valdes brings the 40th anniversary version of his iconic Irakere band on Saturday night, his high-energy bop piano solos helping drive a blasting, 70s-style brass section and compulsively danceable webs of Afro-Cuban percussion. It’s knockout stuff. Richard Bona, a Cameroonian singer-bassist who unenviably follows Kinch on Sunday with his own, smaller Cuban band goes down similarly well. His fine falsetto is matched by Dennis Hernandez’s muted, Miles-style trumpet; Hernandez and trombonist Rey David Alejandre are joyous elsewhere as a breeze breaks the week’s steamy heat, while Lusito and Roberto Quintero’s twin-engined percussion soars.

Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland are Friday’s co-billed headliners. It’s a treat to watch Holland’s Zen-like calm as he runs rolling, almost repeating variations on his double-bass beat. But the band lose their focus at times, testing the thinning crowd’s patience in sapping humidity. Children of the Light – the Wayne Shorter Quartet minus Wayne – offer more master musicians, as Danilo Perez, Brian Blade and John Patitucci preview their debut album. Blade’s generally held-back, stunned, aslant drumming touch and sudden, wood-chopping blows are a marvel in a mostly excellent set.

Avenija, David Binney’s new trio with young Serbs Pera Krstajic (bass) and Pedja Milutinovic, benefits from the contrast in character between Binney’s somewhat dour, sour-toned New York gunslinger sax and the keen, hard-rocking kids. Maltese acts provide appealing opening sets, from pianist Anthony Camilleri’s melodic bop songbook to ‘The Fringe’ Jazz Ensemble of Italo-Maltese novices’ rare, barely pulled off revival of Ellington’s ‘Far East Suite’. Drummer Joseph Camilleri worthily won the Malta Jazz Prize; his resourceful, unflashy solos show the Festival’s main aim of stimulating local jazz is bearing fruit. In its 25th year, director Sandro Zerafa’s drive to survive “untainted by bankability” is also intact.

– Nick Hasted