So there I am, carefully calculating the seven steps that lead to Dominic Galea's basement-cum-rehearsal space, when the band starts playing the title track off Miles Davis' 1963 album, Seven Steps to Heaven. A coincidence without a doubt, but one that is prescient too, for sitting in on a rehearsal by such a talented group of musicians is, to any genuine music lover, a true taste of paradise. The reason Galea and his Jazztet are gathered here is the upcoming Tribute to Miles Davis concert, to be held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta this Friday.
Post-rehearsal, and with the band now gone, Galea and I sit down inside of the newly-refurbished studios at Lito's Place after a quick showaround. It's time to talk jazz, specifically Miles Davis, but before we start, I feel I have to ask if there's a new album-in-waiting in Galea's innovative series of musico-literary albums, certainly unique in the history of recorded Maltese music. "I'm always writing songs whenever the muse takes me, so rather than an album in the works, let's just say there are countless songs written and waiting to be recorded", Galea replies, before elaborating "some of them are linked to the series you mention, but there are many others that will surface as part of something else at some point".
For the past year, bar the soft launch of the Moħġaġa album (of which we can expect to hear more later on in the year), Galea tells me he has put his Maltese literature-inspired projects on the backburner to focus on other opportunities. "Last year was probably one of the most fruitful for me in terms of international activity and exposure", he smiles, clearly pleased as he starts to tell me where he's been performing. "In May I was invited to perform with (bassist) Alan Portelli and (drummer) Bodek Janke at a EUNIC event in Berlin, then in September I played at a jazz festival in the UK with the great Clark Tracey and friends and, last November I played in the magnificent St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt with the same Jazztet that's playing the Miles Davis tribute concert".
An annual event staged by the European Central Banks, last year's edition was hosted by the Central Bank of Malta and also featured the likes of Joseph Calleja, Lydia Caruana and Big Band Brothers. Galea's entourage was boosted by vocalist Nadine Axisa, whose presence made it possible to perform a more varied repertoire for the occasion. On top of all that, Galea has also recently returned from recording a new album in the UK. "Although I have recorded several albums over the years, this was a truly exhilarating and inspiring experience", he recounts, of the one live take recording of his own original compositions. "I will be performing at this year's Malta Jazz Festival with the same quintet that played on the album, under the name of Dominic Galea: The UK Connection".
It's easy to lose track of time when there's so much to talk about, but we suddenly remember we're actually here to talk about the Miles Davis tribute concert. What was it then, that inspired this concert? "It has to do with our Frankfurt performance really, even if indirectly", Galea explains. "When we got back, we all agreed this Jazztet shouldn't be just a one-off thing so, mindful of the fact that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Miles Davis' passing, as well as his 90th birthday, I suggested this tribute concert so we could keep on meeting up to practice, and here we are".
The anniversary wasn't the only reason why Galea picked Miles Davis' music to perform either. "Of course, I am a huge admirer of the man and his music", he readily declares. "I love that he was so innovative in his trumpet-playing, and how above all else, he was aware of what other composers were doing in other genres, not only jazz". I mention that American saxophonist Dave Liebman once described Davis as the 'Scorsese and Coppola of jazz', referring to the way the legendary trumpeter moved musicians around to play what he heard, but to Galea, it is more Davis' interest in composition that is particularly appealing to him. "He was always keeping an eye on what people like Stravinsky, or even Jimi Hendrix were doing, which probably further fuelled his own hunger to explore new ways in bring fresh, exciting sounds to his own music".
Davis' years of playing with the crème de la crème of jazz is of course also mentioned during the course of our conversation, as is his inclination to 'deconstruct and reconstruct bebop's vocabulary into a fresh improvisational space', as reviewer Miles Keylock once described Davis' approach. "Although he was not a bebop pioneer, Davis learnt a lot from playing with the greats, further to which he then applied his own genius, becoming an innovator of the 'cool' jazz style". Galea actually gets into quite some detail, at times going into the evolution of modern jazz in general, but always referencing Davis' own output and maintaining a consistent connection. At the heart of it all, it truly reflects Galea's declared admiration of the legend that is Miles Davis, which augurs well for what he, along with his Jazztet, have in store for this Friday's concert.
The Dominic Galea Jazztet is Walter Vella, Carlo Muscat, Adrian 'Ir-Russu' Brincat, Dominic Galea, Mario 'Cocker' Aquilina and Joseph 'Bibi' Camilleri.
Tickets available online at www.mcc.com.mt.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times of Malta's ESCAPE magazine (17 April 2016)