What is jazz? There's a fine tradition of facetiousness where the problem of definition is concerned. "If you have to ask," Louis Armstrong is reported to have said, "you'll never know." You won't necessarily be any the wiser if you go to the Dubai Jazz Festival this week. Among the headline acts are the husky voiced British pop-rock singers James Morrison and David Gray, the bleating American singer-songwriter Brett Dennen, a few R&B outfits and a clutch of bloodless 1990s funk acts, most notably the Brand New Heavies. Jazz, where detectable at all, appears in its degenerate smooth, lounge or acid strains. I suppose the name "Dubai Adult Contemporary Festival" didn't have the right snap to it, but that is what's on offer. Well, each to their own, and let them call it what they like. That said, perhaps it's time for a rival event - is the name Mellow Melodies taken? - to fill the gap. Let's see if Ornette Coleman fancies a trip to the Gulf.
The Prix Pictet photography award has acquired enormous prestige in the two years since it was set up. The former UN general secretary Kofi Annan is its honorary president. The 2009 jury included the architect Zaha Hadid, the UK's former chief scientific adviser Professor David King and half the Financial Times's culture desk. A second tier of auditors included Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Nyman and Princess Marianne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. The prize's mission is to use the medium of photography to highlight issues of global importance, which might explain why so many of these worthies chose to append their names to it. Well, it's right-on in a nebulous way, undemanding and helps to gild a reputation for discernment. What grandee could refuse?
Yet, in less predictable style, it also succeeded in picking out some terrific photos. Last year's theme was "Earth" and the shortlist included the likes of Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky and Ed Kashi - some of the most feted names in the medium. The main prize went to Nadav Kander for a series taken around the Yangtse River. His work was astonishing for its coldness, its architectural sense of space and scale, and for the elemental human dramas it revealed. When I spoke to Kander he seemed flattered and slightly embarrassed about the prize. He was nominated for it without his knowledge. It wasn't why he took the pictures. That much is obvious by looking at them: they're motivated by an inner necessity that's at least as much poetic as it is documentary. They're well worth seeing, and see them you can, along with the rest of the work shortlisted for the Pictet, at the Empty Quarter gallery this week.
Finally, the latest in Ductac's barrage of visiting theatrical productions encourages us to lift our thoughts to the final frontier. One Small Step is a two-man show tested in the fire of the Oxford Playhouse and the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe. It picked up very warm reviews and so the British Council selected it for a touring showcase. In any event, the play tells the story of the US-Soviet space race using little more than the contents of a British pensioner's attic for props. Out of Dansette record players, beach balls and discarded cruet sets we get the history of rocketry, the murky politics of the Cold War and a recreation of the Moon landing. An old filing cabinet plays Apollo 11. A giant leap? Not if the actors are good.