Stamp of approval for Gibraltar Jazz Festival
Neil McKim visits the Gibraltar Jazz Festival
What are the chances of a UK political party having ‘a jazz festival’ as part of its manifesto? Well, they'd get my vote! But this is exactly what has happened in Gibraltar, the self-governing British overseas territory – famously known as ‘The Rock’ – which sits at the mouth of the Mediterranean. The incoming government has embraced the creation of a jazz festival wholeheartedly and even launched a special stamp to commemorate the occasion. ‘Our government is led by events-based tourism and we believe that there is a lot to be said for a concert-led festival,’ says minister of culture Steven Linares.
The first Gibraltar International Jazz Festival (28-30 June) has just taken place and its humble origin can be traced to a local jazz fan and bass player George Posso. He has been tirelessly running jazz sessions each week at Gibraltar's Elliott Hotel, where a dedicated hub of local jazz musicians (and any that happen to be visiting) play jazz into the early hours every Thursday. Posso registered the Gibraltar Jazz Society 12 years ago, and over this time his international contacts have mushroomed, making jazz an ideal field for the government to promote.
It’s early evening on the festival’s first night and a giant stage has been erected in Gibraltar’s historic Casemates Square. The backdrop – of early evening sun and a blend of tree-lined streets, cafes and converted historic fortifications – makes a perfect setting for the emerging sounds of the New Orleans Jump band (pictured above, actually from Sotogrande in Spain). They kick things off with a rousing rendition of ‘All of Me’. Next up is Posso and his band – including US saxophonist Dan Moretti from Berklee College of Music and Brit trumpeter Neil Yates – who take to the main stage. Their excellent set includes ‘Georgia on My Mind’, sung by local trumpeter Mitch Jansen, and Sonny Rollins's 'St Thomas' - the track with which (I’m told) the local jazzers often finish their hotel jam sessions.
The billing also includes local-born jazz hero Elie Massias, who, with Posso’s encouragement, went on to become immersed in New York's jazz scene. His mix of world-music percussion and guitar provides an arresting contrast to the mainstream jazz of the previous set, and he expertly teams up with Valencian vibraphonist Arturo Serra.
And it's perhaps this theme of contrast that cannily forms a thread through the festival, helping both players and onlookers to understand the wide diversity of jazz. For the players, this is demonstrated in the daytime workshops, overseen by Moreti, which is run for musicians from the festival and local schools. In one he gets members of the University of London Big Band to play through the jazz standard ‘There’s No Greater Love’ in styles varying from mambo, cha-cha-cha, ‘swing reggae’ and dixieland. His advice is amicable and succinct: ‘The most important thing is rhythm. I’d rather hear one note that grooves rather than two that don’t.’
The festival-goers clearly revel in this free inaugural jazz programme. Gibraltarian jazz vocalist Kirsty Almeida and her Manchester-based jazz collective The Troubadours get the packed square dancing to her eclectic mix of jazz, with shades of country, voodoo and township jive. The inclusion of her version of ‘Bang Bang’ (famous from Tarantino’s film Kill Bill) is an unexpected gem. But it’s the US-based Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen (above) who causes a sensation with both jazz fans and those who haven’t heard his type of contemporary jazz before. With material from his 2011 Blue Note album Seven Seas, his formidable technique and hammering relentless rhythms – underpinned by the exhilarating driving accompaniment of drummer Amir Bresler – prove a festival highlight. (Cohen’s distinctive top-of-the-bass slapping style even inspires an enthusiastic member of the audience to copy it on a nearby wheelie bin.)
‘We’ve brought in the big bands. But as you can see there is a lot of local jazz talent in Gibraltar and that is what we’re trying to foster,’ says Linares. And it’s a political strategy that appears to be already paying off. The hotels and flights have been fully booked during the inaugural jazz festival week.
And George Posso and his jazz regulars are clearly delighted that the festival has been such a success. ‘We’ve been generating a lot of interest worldwide,’ he says ‘with musicians coming from around the world. This festival is going to put Gibraltar in the world of jazz festivals.’