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Joe Smith wastes no time in getting straight to the point of any question, and has a refreshing candour for a baby boomer. No sooner do we meet when he sets the scene by saying, “I love jazz and I’m a photographer”. Those who don’t know master photographer Joe Smith’s work have the opportunity to correct that with a retrospective exhibition ‘Jazz Island’ at The Phoenicia’s Palm Court Lounge from July 16 to 21 to coincide with the Malta Jazz Festival and the return of Chick Corea.
Joe Smith has been following the Malta Jazz Festival since the very beginning, photographing the greats of Jazz on his own terms. Like the greatest sports photographers, Joe is able to capture fractional moments of time that define the performers and the stages, let’s say spaces, which they occupy. These spaces are as much musical as they are human and spiritual, the performer in the performer’s environment. For perfectionist Smith, it’s the negative space that the performer moves into which makes the shot. And what shots! Frozen in time, the faces of greats who are no longer with us like Charlie Haden, Paul Motion and Blue Note’s Joe Henderson; faces still visible thanks to Smith’s gift for capturing essences.
There’s a lot of emotion in Joe, and this is reflected in the images that he has chosen to define his work with the Malta Jazz Festival over the last three decades. Images in black and white, which seem to capture the eternal spirit of jazz through these jazz portraits, all of which have been shot in Malta.
The tonal range of Smith’s shots is remarkable, we looked at a monochrome shot from Siena in Northern Italy, one lonely figure with an umbrella, splashes of light softening a wide-baroque staircase that glistened quietly with the passage of time. Joe’s blacks are the richest, deepest blacks, blacks that make the entire photographic space syncopate with the subjects in his work. This space is not emptiness, it is sometimes a backdrop to Joe’s famous jazz subjects, sometimes a reflection of their energy as they gesture dramatically on stage, or the counterpoint as they reveal with an unexpected facial expression as part of a heightened sense of the live performance.
For jazz aficionados, Joe’s selection at The Phoenicia ‘Jazz Island’ retrospective is a who’s who of the international jazz scene; Ambrose Akinmusire, Avishai Cohen, Brian Blade, Michel Camilo, Danilo Perez, Dave Holland, Eric Harland, Mark Guiliana, Joe Sanders, Marcus Roberts, Lincoln Goynes, Richard Bona, Esperanza Spalding and Tom Harell are just some of the performers selected in the exhibition. Suspended in time, the word for every image is evocative, giving a new perspective on the jazz greats that have performed at the Malta Jazz Festival throughout the years.
The entire exhibition has been compressed down to 21 prints, the cream of thousands of shots, the blink of an eye across almost thirty years. Here negative space fixes the mood and story of every image, creating a context in which the evident feelings of these human beings connecting with other human beings through jazz music is suspended forever, feelings amplified by the black and the white in each and every image.
Following previous summer exhibitions at The Phoenicia by Jeni Caruana and Charles ‘City’ Gatt, also to coincide with the Malta Jazz Festival, this exhibition by Joe Smith at the iconic property is an outstanding example of Maltese artistic talent, and as the featured visual artist for European City of Culture the hotel could not have made a better choice. Joe said that one of the things he loves about jazz is that the performers never play the same thing twice. In Joe Smith’s very special jazz portraits the viewer never sees the same thing twice. This is an exhibition not to miss.

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