Busting out of the microcosm | Oliver Degabriele

With the Malta Jazz Festival kicking off soon, Teodor Reljic caught up with Malta-born, Paris-based double-bass player Oliver Degabriele ahead of an upcoming gig where he will be accompanying vocalist Nadine Axisa for a free concert 

Oliver Degabriele. Photo by Elisa Von Brockdorff
Oliver Degabriele. Photo by Elisa Von Brockdorff

First off, are you looking forward to performing at the Malta Jazz Festival? Does the event have any special significance to you as a performer, and what do you think it contributes to the Maltese musical ecology in general? 

I’ve had the opportunity to play a few times at the Malta Jazz Festival and it’s always exciting. It is after all this festival that gave me the jazz bug, and when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in music. When I was growing up in the nineties, the jazz festival represented a concentrated dose of good music that hit Malta for one weekend a year. It was inconceivable to miss the festival, especially since there was nothing much else going on in terms of jazz on the island. It was three days of discovery, awe and beer which I looked forward to all year!

Even though there is more access to live music nowadays, the Festival is still a critical part of the cultural calendar. Many young musicians have been inspired by the jazz festival to take up music professionally, enrolling themselves in conservatories abroad, forming projects and collaborating with other young foreign musicians. In a country that lacks a solid jazz educational curriculum, the festival is the only source of exposure young musicians have to quality jazz music, as well as being a continuous source of inspiration to musicians and listeners alike.

What can you tell us about your concert on July 20? What can the audience expect from you and the rest of the band, and are there any particular highlights you’re looking forward to?

The festival will continue on last year’s initiative to free up the first evening of shows and move it from Ta’ Liesse into the heart of Valletta. Three free shows will be held around the capital and I will be playing alongside Nadine Axisa at the Pjazza Teatru Rjal on July 20.

I have been playing with Nadine for a few years and it’s a pleasure to be accompanying her at the jazz festival. She is a singer of exceptional class and versatility and has a sunny repertoire of songs which will go down perfectly with the festival audience. The band also features two veterans of the Maltese jazz scene, Dominic Galea and Joe Micallef as well as Italian sax player, Rino Cirinna and Serbian trumpet player Stjpeko Gut who will be completing the line up and lending their sounds to a set of music put together especially for the festival.

I personally look forward to watching Antonio Sanchez and Mark Giuliana’s bands at the festival. They play a modern style of music that resonates very well with what I do and the music I grew up with.

As an active professional musician, what have been some of the projects you’ve been engaged in recently?

I am lucky enough to be part of some exciting projects in France and in Malta. Towards the end of last year and early this year, I was part of a few album releases that have paved the way to an exciting season of shows and tours that will be keeping me busy throughout most of the year.

I have just come back from an Ethiopian tour with ethio-groove band Akalé Wubé (with whom we have recorded an album that has been released as part of the incredible Ethiopiques series) and look forward to more shows in Europe, South America and Asia later on in the year. I am also working on new music with contemporary jazz bands Festen and Oxyd, which also have a busy 2017 schedule of festivals and tours lined up.

In Malta I’m kept busy with Etnika (with whom we had an incredible Australian tour earlier this year) and the notorious Brikkuni, both of which have released albums in the past few months, as well as being a sideman in a few jazz combos, including Nadine’s.

How would you describe ‘dividing your time’ between Malta and Paris, as a musician? What kind of insight does that give you into the musical scenes of both places?

Dividing my time between Paris and Malta is in equal parts invigorating and tiring. Sounds very contradictory but while it is a “best of both worlds” situation, the travelling and constant living out of a suitcase can be exhausting at times. Not to mention the dreaded agenda clashes and the negotiations to try and be there (wherever it may be…) for all the important gigs and recordings!

Artistically, it is a huge motivator. Even though I’m very much into the projects I’m part of in Malta, and I sincerely believe the jazz scene has improved drastically over the past 10 years, it is still impossible to compare both scenes. Malta still remains a microcosm, operating in a bubble in which it is relatively easy to “make it” locally. While that can be satisfying for a while, playing and studying in a city like Paris keeps you grounded and on your toes with regards to quality and exigence. That way you don’t get lazy!

What do you make of the musical scene in Malta right now? What would you change about it? 

Having grown up and experienced the rock and jazz scene in Malta in the 90s, it is clear that the music scene has taken tremendous leaps forward. We still complain that “it is better abroad” but the quality of projects, recordings, live shows and musicianship in Malta has been reaching new highs for the past 15 years. More musicians are overcoming the island obstacle and touring or studying abroad (we have EU accession to thank for that), public funding has become commonplace and a necessity for recordings of more ambitious projects. Even though the live music club scene remains lacking, a lot of great festivals have sprouted and creating platforms for new music to come through.

I think the biggest improvement in the jazz scene is due to a new degree of separation from the “entertainment” music scene, which is omnipresent in Malta, with all the weddings and hotels. I remember a time not that long ago, when playing jazz in Malta meant you could only play weddings and hotels to earn a living. Then occasionally, you got to play at a festival or club. This is slowly changing, and it is a very good thing. Young musicians are forming jazz projects, touring, recording and pushing aesthetic boundaries, which is hard to do if you’re playing for a client at a private event. So even if the private event circuit remains an important part of a professional musician’s job everywhere in the world, it is very motivating for a young musician to have more opportunities to play jazz that might veer off from the mainstream.

I mentioned before that Malta still lacks a solid jazz education programme. This would probably be something I would like to see happen soon. Jazz does require an initiation of sorts and it is very difficult for a young musician to learn jazz the right way without the proper guidance, history and context.

What’s next for you?

More of the same, which is great! More recordings (currently working on a new Festen album inspired by Kubrick’s filmography), more touring (I’ll be in Serbia with Festen, South America with Akalé Wubé and Asia with Oxyd) and more gigs in France and Malta (including a few jazz gigs in some cool new venues in Valletta in August, as well as a monthly Akalé Wubé residency in a Parisian club, to mention a couple).

Oliver Degabriele will be performing alongside Nadine Axisa, Dominic Galea, Joe Micallef, Rino Cirinnà and Stjepko Gut at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta on July 20 at 21:00. The concert forms part of the Malta Jazz Festival, and will be free of charge.