by Ian Mann
December 23, 2020
A very beautiful album that represents something of a milestone for its co-leaders.
Elina Duni / Rob Luft
(ECM Records, ECM 2869, Bar Code 073 9322)
Elina Duni – voice, Rob Luft – guitar
Fred Thomas – piano, drums
Matthieu Michel – flugelhorn
“Lost Ships” represents the début album from the duo of life partners Elina Duni and Rob Luft.
Vocalist Elina Duni was born in Tirana, Albania in 1981 but moved to Geneva, Switzerland with her mother in 1992. She studied classical piano before turning towards jazz and going on to study singing and composition at the jazz department of the Hochschule der Künste in Bern. It was here that she formed her long running quartet featuring pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Norbert Pfammatter. This line up appeared on her ECM début “Matane Malit” (meaning “Beyond the Mountain”), released in 2012.
Despite her move to Switzerland Duni has never lost touch with her Balkan roots and “Matane Malit” represented a musical homage to her native Albania. The album was very well received, with pianist Vallon also going on to establish a successful solo career with ECM.
2015’s “Dallendyshe” (“The Swallow”), recorded with the same line up, explored similar themes and again featured mainly traditional material, but with the repertoire expanded to embrace elements of the music of the Albanian diaspora.
2017’s “Partir” saw Duni not only singing but also playing all the instruments (guitar, piano, percussion) on a truly solo recording that included arrangements of traditional material from various parts of the Balkans and beyond.
“Lost Ships” finds Duni placing a greater emphasis on original material, written in conjunction with her life partner and principal collaborator Rob Luft. Specialising on vocals and guitar respectively the pair are joined by the British multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas, who appears on both piano and drums, and the Swiss flugelhorn player Mathieu Michel.
The seeds for the “Lost Ships” project were sown in 2017 when Duni and Luft met at a series of workshops in Lausanne to work on an enhanced version of Duni’s “Partir” project. Here Luft deployed his guitar and its associated electronic effects to create an atmospheric layer of additional colours and textures, transforming and embellishing the largely traditional Balkan songs that constituted the “Partir” repertoire.
Duni and Luft have subsequently written together, and “Lost Ships” features six original songs alongside six others selected from a diverse range of other sources, as the duo explain in their album liner notes.
“This is an album about contemporary issues facing us all; the tragic story of the migration crisis in Europe and beyond, the impending ecological fallout owing to the destruction of nature. It is also an album about places we’ve been and loved, including places that no longer exist or continue to exist only as a fragment of our imagination. There are songs that touch upon past influences, with the sound of Albania and Mediterranean folklore ever-present. We wanted to explore other musical roots, too: timeless jazz ballads, French chanson, American folk song. Alongside the gravity that is found in many of the pieces, there is a lightness that pervades throughout, and we believe that this light can and will outshine these troubled times. In every tear there is a light that shows…”
“Lost Ships” represents Luft’s ECM début and it’s a release that will help to bring his talents to the attention of an international audience. That said twenty six year old Luft has already established a formidable reputation in the UK as one of the most distinctive and imaginative guitarist / composers of his generation. He has already released two exceptional albums as a leader for Edition Records and both “Riser” (2017) and “Life is the Dancer” (2020) are reviewed elsewhere on this site, as is a live appearance by Luft and his regular band ( Joe Wright – tenor saxophone, Joe Webb – keyboards, Tom McCredie – electric bass, Corrie Dick – drums, percussion) at The Hive Music & Media Centre in Shrewsbury in June 2019, one of the best performances that I’ve ever witnessed at this venue.
Luft is a frequent award winner, and his many accolades include the 2016 Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize, which helped to finance the recording of “Riser”. More recently he was selected as a BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist, following in the footsteps of such musicians as pianist Gwilym Simcock and trumpeter Laura Jurd.
Given the scale of his talent it’s not surprising that Luft has collaborated with an impressive roster of other musicians, among them multi-instrumentalists Adam Glasser and Felix Jay, vocalists Alice Zawadzki, Joy Ellis and Luna Cohen, saxophonists Dave O’Higgins, Rob Cope and Phil Meadows, bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado, trumpeters Byron Wallen and Laura Jurd, violinist Faith Brackenbury, cellist Shirley Smart and drummers Phelan Burgoyne and Enzo Zirilli.
He is also part of the tango group Deco Ensemble and of the co-operative quartet Big Bad Wolf, whose 2017 début “Pond Life” is reviewed here;
He has also performed with Snowpoet, the group co-led by vocalist and lyricist Lauren Kinsella and multi-instrumentalist and composer Chris Hyson.
Given that migration is one of its themes it’s perhaps not totally surprising to find Duni singing in four different languages on the “Lost Ships” album. The recording commences with the traditional Italian song “Bella Ci Diormi”, with the vocalist singing hauntingly in the appropriate language. The album booklet includes the English translation of the lyric, the song title meaning “Beauty, You Sleep”. Translations are also provided for other songs, something I personally found to be very helpful. Duni’s emotive, but measured vocals, benefit from the sensitive accompaniment of Luft on guitar and Thomas at the piano. The guitarist arranged the song and has commented; “as we were going into the studio to make a record for ECM I wanted to blend the original melody with much more John Taylor-ish, Kenny Wheeler-ish harmony”. This represents a nice touch, both Taylor and Wheeler, sadly neither no longer with us, enjoyed long association with ECM, both as solo artists and as members of the fondly remembered Azimuth trio alongside vocalist Norma Winstone.
The Duni / Luft original “Brighton” actually features a French lyric. It’s a song of the sea, the lyrics, delivered by Duni with a winsome charm and with Thomas featuring on drums alongside Luft on guitar, plus flugelhorn soloist Michel, who plays with a Kenny Wheeler like elegance.
The first song to feature an English lyric is “I’m A Fool To Want You”, written by Frank Sinatra, Jack Wolf and Joel Herron, and which represents a dip into the jazz ballad / Great American Songbook repertoire. Duni delivers the piece like a ‘torch song’, her expression of the yearning and regret implicit in the lyrics complemented by Luft’s shadowy guitar, Michel’s melancholic flugel, and finally Thomas’ light touch on the cymbals.
A second Duni / Luft original visits similarly sombre territory, albeit with more abstract and symbolic lyrical imagery. The arrangement makes excellent use of Luft’s range of effects and the song eventually ends on a more optimistic note as Duni sings “all in motion, our hearts open”.
The title track was the first song to be written for the project and refers directly to the migrant crisis. Duni’s lyrics reference the beauty of the Mediterranean and her joy of swimming in its blue depths, a beauty now tainted by the presence of lost ships and lost bodies in its waters following the recent waves of desperate political and economic migrants. The line “but there’s no more fishes in the sea” may also allude to the ongoing ecological emergency. Both the words, and an arrangement featuring a combination of guitar and piano, are simple but evocative, sometimes reminiscent of folk song.
This observation leads us neatly to an arrangement of the traditional American folk song “The Wayfaring Stranger”. Duni’s well enunciated vocal imbues this hymn like tune with an emotive gravitas, qualities enhanced by an arrangement featuring guitar, piano and the velvet tones of Michel’s flugel.
“Flying Kites” sees Duni re-living her childhood in communist Albania. The lyrics, with their images of kite flying, chasing butterflies and trading sweets speaks of a forgotten age of innocence as she sings “we felt so grand, we had so little, delight was our land”. Duni has since spoken of how those streets have changed - “concrete has invaded every part of the city where I grew up”. The lyrics are an evocative and nostalgic reminder of those far off days, while an arrangement that features Thomas on drums also sees Luft’s elegantly spiralling guitar solo approximating the aerial dances of those butterflies and kites.
“Lux” addresses the passage of time through lyrical images of water and light, concluding with the line quoted in the liner note; “in every tear, there is a light that shows”. Another beautiful performance sees Duni’s pure and clear vocals enhanced by instrumental performances on piano and guitar that give aural shape to those lyrical images, with Luft adding a suitably liquid guitar solo.
“Kur Me Del Ne Dere” is a traditional Albanian song, whose title translates as “When You Appear On My Doorstep”. Here the music is more obviously “Balkan”, almost “Middle Eastern” with Duni’s vocal incantations matched by Luft’s slippery electric guitar lines and the patter of Thomas’ percussion.
Another traditional Albanian song, “N’at Zaman”, translating as “When The Storm”, retains the Balkan feel, but the mood is more subdued, the song is a lament, almost the Albanian equivalent of the blues. The performance, a duet between Duni and Luft is quiet but intense, intimate but emotionally raw.
The original song “Empty Street” is a brief but compelling sketch of loneliness, with Duni’s wistful vocals and evocative lyrics complemented by Luft’s guitar in an intimate duo performance.
The album concludes with a version of Charles Aznavour’s “Hier Encore”, chosen because the duo often play in Francophone locations, such as Switzerland. The pair first played this song at a concert in Lausanne, much to the approval of the French speakers in the audience. “Some of these chanson pieces from France have stories that are so strong and lyrics that are so touching that we felt we had to include it on the album”, Luft has explained.
Aznavour’s lyrics, written from the point of view written from the point of view of an old man looking back on his twenty year old self and at all the time he has wasted in between, are delivered by Duni in the original French, accompanied only by Luft’s guitar, in another supremely intimate duo performance.
The “Lost Ships” album has attracted a compelling amount of critical praise, and rightly so. Under the guidance of veteran ECM producer Manfred Eicher Duni and Luft have delivered something of a quiet masterpiece. It is an album that never shouts for the listener’s attention but nevertheless attracts it thanks to the sheer beauty of the performances. The singing and playing is understated, the virtuosity of the players never signposted but instead channelled faithfully into serving the material. The songs are derived from various sources but unified by their emotional impact and directness, the arrangements deliberately kept simple, but still containing moments of exquisitely beautiful playing from all three instrumentalists. Duni sings with quiet authority and a great maturity, sounding emotionally convincing whatever language she is singing in, no mean skill. Her vocals are pure and clear, technically accomplished but shorn of any histrionics. Meanwhile Luft combines acoustic and electric guitar sounds with consummate skill, serving as the perfect accompanist, in addition to his role as a composer and arranger.
There’s a folk like simplicity about much of this material and a quiet, melancholic, but emotionally direct, beauty that is likely to appeal to a wide audience, far beyond the usual jazz demographic.
Whether “Lost Ships” actually constitutes a ‘jazz’ album is a moot point anyway, but it’s undeniably a very beautiful one that represents something of a milestone for its co-leaders.
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