Paris-based jazz guitarist Sandro Zerafa is synonymous with the Malta Jazz Festival. He has succeeded Charles ‘City’ Gatt as its artistic director. He talks to Joseph Agius about the festival, his professional life and his other passions.

The festival, the brainchild of Maltese jazz drummer and percussionist Charles ‘City’ Gatt, came to fruition in 1991; the first line-up included Chick Corea, Elvin Jones and Michel Petrucciani. Along the years, jazz superstars like Herbie Hancock, Paul Bley, John McLaughlin, Carla Bley, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, among others, graced the stage at Ta’ Liesse. Is such a legacy a hard act to follow?

Charles did an excellent job. He was a pioneer. Malta in the early 1990s was quite a wasteland when it came to cultural activities. I still think that nobody actually realises what it meant to witness such heavyweights on our island back then. It was miraculous. When I took over the curatorship in 2009, I thought I could take the festival a step further. I wanted the festival to have a deeper impact on the local scene. I was not happy with just three days of concerts with headliners. I wanted to add another dimension. The festival now features masterclasses, exhibitions, jam sessions, lunchtime concerts, exchange programmes and concerts beyond Ta’ Liesse. I evidently made it a point to preserve the level of excellence in the programming, much along the lines of Charles Gatt.

Last year, the Malta Jazz Festival was a watered-down version as it was downscaled due to COVID-19. What’s on the cards for this year’s edition?

I wouldn’t say “watered-down”. It was more of an abridged version. It was also an edition that I will always cherish. Three weeks before the event we were not sure what was going to happen. When we managed to pull it off, there was a lot of enthusiasm and a sense of conviviality. It felt rare, beautiful and impossible. We also had a killer line-up, although none of the ‘stars’ we usually host. For this year, we are still waiting to see how the situation evolves. The festival is on, the programme is thrilling, but the sanitary situation is ever-changing and we will have a clear idea in the next few weeks.

You are a jazz guitarist of international renown with a number of albums under your belt. Your latest album, Last Night When We Were Young, has been launched recently. Has this last year affected your compositional perspective?

My latest release is a homage to the Great American Songbook. It is my fifth album as a leader and the first one not featuring any compositions of mine. Standards are intrinsically tied to the jazz language. I think they are the ultimate vehicle for freedom of expression, where one can play with that tension between tradition and innovation. I have been doing standards gigs all my life. But somehow, I always thought that recording a standards album is a great challenge. There is the historical weight of 100 years of discographic output, tons of references… legendary recordings by the masters. What could I possibly contribute? At a certain point and at a certain age, however, one stops being too self-conscious. One stops ‘thinking’ too much. It became a necessity for me to do this album. And I am quite happy with the result.

Most festivals nowadays tend to succumb to a watered-down populist notion of ‘jazz’. It is like a disease which is permeating all art forms unfortunately

Does the guitarist and jazz purist in you affect your choice of acts for the MJF? Is it hard to achieve a balance attracting the jazz purists and the crossover audience?

It obviously does, although sometimes I have to put my tastes aside. Otherwise I think that the situation with most jazz festivals nowadays is quite sad. Most festivals nowadays tend to succumb to a watered-down populist notion of ‘jazz’. It is like a disease which is permeating all art forms unfortunately. The main challenge is to find the right equilibrium bet­ween the popular and erudite forms of jazz while remaining true to this art form. Also, the boundaries between different genres have become very blurred, and the very meaning of jazz has become a complex issue. However, there are essential elements of jazz which need to be preserved. This music will live as long as there is one foot in the past and another one in the future.

It is often rumoured that there is some snobbish diffidence between the jazz and the classical music worlds. Gunther Schuller came up with The Third Stream to fuse the genres. One of your great friends is Mro Brian Schembri, a renowned orchestra conductor. Do you envisage a musical collaboration with him in the spirit of The Third Stream?

Classical music is a great source of inspiration. I think it is quite foolish for anyone to dismiss the importance of it. Any jazz musician can learn a lot about beauty, harmony and structure from studying and listening to classical music. I never had any problems with classical musicians, although I have to admit, I dislike that kind of ethnocentrism and stiffness which can sometimes pervade their milieu. I have embarked on some ‘cross­over’ projects in the past, including an exploration of Russian composer Scriabin’s piano music in a jazz context. Together with Brian Schembri, who is a good friend and ‘drinking buddy’, there was talk about an orchestral project, featuring arrangements of American standards by a prominent French arranger. Brian would conduct and I would be the soloist. Unfortunately this never materialised, but it is something I would love to do in future.

Another passion of yours is cuisine. You are also a gourmand with a refined taste in wine, cognac and whisky. Virginia Woolf remarked that “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”. Is this one of your mottos?

I can spend hours kneading pasta dough, watching tutorials on how to debone a quail, drooling on Instagram #carbonara posts and learning about wine. There is nothing to pontificate about. I am like that. I find it is sad that people are increasingly convenience-minded when it comes to shopping for food and eating. Eating habits are quite disastrous nowadays. People tend to see food as a waste of time. I don’t. Yes, I concur with Virginia Woolf!

Visiting the world was one of your passions which has been curtailed by COVID-19. Is there a substitute for this? How has Paris fared during the pandemic?

A city devoid of what makes a city attractive is dull. However, the Paris streets emptied of tourists did have a certain charm. This last year was tough on musicians, but frankly I cannot really complain. To be honest, most musicians in France fared much better than anywhere else due to the government-subsidised ‘intermittent’ system. Other than that, yes, we had to adapt like everybody else. I was practising more and I also started doing a series of solo guitar miniatures which I posted regularly on social media. Pasta-making activity intensified. When restrictions were eased down, we resumed sessions among musicians. This is one of the great things about cities like Paris and New York. There are many musicians and everybody is enthusiastic about playing, even when there’s no work.

You are interested in all forms of art, besides music – the visual arts, literature, cinema. Can you mention an example from each genre, jazz included, that you find of exceptional relevance? Do these other art forms influence you when creating music?

It is very hard for me to designate any particular works. I listen to huge amounts of music. Off the cuff, I would say Thelonious Monk’s Solo Piano works on Columbia, Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer, Sonny Rollins’s East Broadway Run Down, Horowitz playing anything, Samson François playing Ravel and most of Keith Jarrett’s quartet recordings with Dewey Redman have left deep marks on me. I am mostly influenced by the musicians I play with, by nature and by life situations. I am a huge lover of Italian cinema and Ettore Scola and Michelangelo Antonioni are probably my favourite film directors. The last book I read which really moved me was John Williams’s Stoner. I read less nowadays, mostly biographies. Hampton Hawes’s autobiographi­cal book Raise Up Off Me was great.

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