The Music Room at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity in Valletta has a unique quality that extends beyond its renovation.
Its compactness practically guarantees any live performance held there will ooze an intimate, warm ambience that few other venues can match, which is probably why Maltese guitarist Marc Galea loves the place so much.
Just over two weeks ago, Galea launched his album Easy Dialogue there, performing to an audience that sat quietly; observing, absorbing every note that the guitarist and his current partners-in-jazz, namely Paul Abela on keyboards, Alan Portelli on bass and Joe ‘Bibi’ Camilleri on drums, served up during the 90-minute performance.
He may be known more prominently as a jazz guitarist, but Galea’s musical beginnings stem from a very different place. In fact, his first musical experience didn’t even involve a guitar.
“The first instrument I played was the violin,” he explains when asked what sparked off his passion for music. “No offence to violinists, but I hated it.”
The real spark arrived later, via a chance encounter with a Queen song on the radio. “I must have been about 11… I remember The Show Must Go On came on and I was hooked.”
Initially, it was the bass guitar he started to play, but only due to a slight misunderstanding on his part.
“My father played acoustic guitar in church, and his sound was nothing like that on Queen’s records, so I naively assumed it was the bass guitar that produced the sound that gave those songs their rock edge.”
Fortunately, Galea soon came to realise that the electric guitar was the instrument he was in search of and quickly swapped instruments, even if he admits he thought it was too complex an instrument at first.
His dedication was further strengthened as he got into more rock acts, such as The Doors, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Maiden and Guns n’ Roses, but it was after he went to see Joe Satriani in concert that Galea decided music was what he wanted to do professionally.
“I’d practice about 12 hours each day and basically that’s where my life in music really started.”
Like most musicians, he played with various bands along the way, including punk act Blackcurrant and rock bands Juicy Affair and Nice Price. He remembers those times fondly, but confides that the whole band experience was bittersweet.
“It was quite likely because music was my main and only focus, but I always felt the other members weren’t as committed as I was, so I decided it was probably better to do something on my own.”
He gave the ‘band thing’ one last shot and joined Lunatic, a rock band fronted by a certain Errol Sammut, now more popularly known as the voice of Airport Impressions. That eventually fizzled out and Galea was convinced the way forward was to follow his own instinct.
The first hint of a sea change in his musical influences was ignited when he attended the 1997 Malta Jazz Festival.
“I went in a disciple of Joe Stariani and Steve Vai, and came out completely smitten by the skills of Mike Stern, John Scofield and Hiram Bullock. My musical world suddenly got bigger.”
Still attached to rock and blues but keen to wander deeper into the world of jazz, Galea blended his influences and was active in all of them, a balance that was reflected in the music featured on his 2007 debut release, the My Journey EP (which features three original compositions and an immaculate acoustic arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile) and again on his 2009 demo.
Galea feels it was only fairly recently that he has been able to compose jazz music more readily. “It was around 2009, about the same time I shifted my focus fully towards jazz. Apart from the odd session, all musical events I’ve been involved in since then have been jazz-related.”
One of his earliest experiences as a performer within the local jazz scene was as part of Dominic Galea’s combo, establishing a connection with the pianist that has endured ever since.
“Dominic played a vital part in giving me a solid footing in the jazz scene,” he confirms, adding that from then on he has sought to improve his knowledge and guitar-playing by studying with influential teachers, among them Sandro Zerafa, John Mizarolli and Luigi Tessarollo as well as Jim Kelly and Mark White when he attended a Berklee University summer course in Italy.
Meanwhile, Galea’s career as a music tutor was also flourishing. He had already been teaching music as far back as 2001, around which time he also produced and presented the innovative B’Sitt Kordi TV series, but his teaching career was to reach new heights when he seized the opportunity to run the Euro Institute of Music in Hamrun.
As the institute’s principal, Galea successfully organises various master classes by important international musicians such as Phil Hilborne, Neil Murray, Gordon Giltrap, Sandro Zerafa and Luigi Tessarollo, all of whom have given classes in recent years. Aa a member of the Registry of Guitar Tutors, Galea was also awarded the internationally-acclaimed RGT Guitar Tutor of the Year Award for two years running (in 2008 and 2009) by the London School of Music.
These awards weren’t the only significant moments in Galea’s career, however. He counts his 2006 performance with Tessarollo as a major event in his career.
“It was a giant leap for me because it was my first ever jazz performance, and to play alongside someone like Luigi was daunting, but it went well.”
Not as daunting apparently, as playing with Ivan Filletti’s band and opening for Claudio Baglioni when the latter performed here in 2007.
“Apart from being a bit on edge because I had only had a week or so to learn Ivan’s songs, the minute I walked onstage and saw the huge crowd, that was it. I can honestly tell you I was so I was gob-smacked that I don’t remember anything about our performance,” he confesses, “but at least I have one picture to assure me I was there”.
Galea’s most recent memorable moment is the release of his debut album, Easy Dialogue. Recorded largely in live takes, it features seven tracks, including a jazz interpretation of the national anthem.
“The arrangement for it actually came to me quite naturally while I was jamming away to pass the time, but I was a bit wary of releasing it for a while”. Fortunately the invigorated arrangement of Innu Malti made it onto the album and is there for all to enjoy, as is a vibrant reworking of New Cuorey’s epic L-Aħħar Bidwi f’Wied il-Għasel. “I’ve always loved the song and always imagined it would translate well in a jazz setting”.
The rest of the album includes covers of Miles Davis’ All Blues and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive and three original compositions by Galea; the funk-infected title track, Boja Fauus’ and Freedom, the opening track which sets the pace with is fluid punctuation and melodic flow.
The new album will form the core of Galea’s live set at this year’s Malta Jazz Festival, an event he is very much looking forward to.
“We’re playing there on July 16 along with French sax player Robin Nicaise. I’m especially excited about it as I’ve always wanted to perform at the festival with my own band.”
The excitement won’t stop there either, as the band will also be performing at a jazz festival in Sicily the following month.