Trio Tapestry/Elina Duni and Rob Luft
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 17 November 2019. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Chris Parker)
As a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of what is arguably Europe’s most prestigious jazz record label, ECM, this gig could not have been bettered. Although the label concentrated initially on the freer manifestations of the music (its first release, from US pianist Mal Waldron, was appropriately entitled Free at Last), it has since become known (not to say affectionately parodied) for its exhaustive and painstaking documentation of the plethora of European contemporary music, both folk- and jazz-based, that can be heard from Bristol to Warsaw, Oslo to Sicily. This concert unaffectedly embraced both these company traditions.
Elina Duni is an Albanian-born singer, raised in Switzerland, and her duo partner on this occasion, Rob Luft, is a London-born guitarist with an archetypal ECM-friendly award under his belt: in 2016 he won the Kenny Wheeler Prize from the Royal Academy of Music. Together, they performed Songs of Love and Exile, plaintive, searingly affecting folk-based melodies infused with jazz sensibility, but never losing touch with the direct, visceral appeal of their source material, whether this dealt with the nostalgic yearning for home felt by exiles, or the freedom for self-expression sought by shepherdesses. Duni’s soaring, sensuous singing has a clarity and purity that recalls, say, Yanka Rupkina, but it is tellingly infused with jazz elements such as light scatting and sparing but effective melodic improvisation; Luft’s guitar shadows her almost telepathically, its textural variety perfectly complementing her vocal line, and his solos small masterpieces of compression and subtlety. In short: classic ECM.
Trio Tapestry comprises saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. Lovano, who provides all the trio’s material (albeit in the form of what one recent reviewer called ‘stepping stones’ rather than full-blown compositions), is known for his thorough familiarity with and unrivalled assurance in the modern-jazz tradition, from mainstream through bop to post-bop and beyond, so it is fascinating to hear him channel all this wealth of experience and sophistication into spare, sometimes barely hinted-at scraps of melody or subtly suggested chord sequences, exploring all their possibilities in a thoughtful, restrained but powerful manner. His is usually a rich, fruity sound delivered with irresistible zest and energy; in this context (which, in his extraordinarily varied cv, inevitably brings his stint in the Paul Motian Trio to mind), he is able to combine intricacy and musing delicacy with controlled passion in an utterly personal, distinctive sound. Crispell (like Luft in the gig’s support set) shadows Lovano every step of the way, by turns probing, explorative and adventurous, yet capable (most notably in her rapturous introduction to one of the evening’s highlights, ‘Night Creatures’) of astonishingly beautiful lyricism. Under it all, Castaldi subtly propels and embellishes, expertly commenting on the pieces’ progress through Lovano’s sketched-out suggestions – like Paul Motian before him, he is thoroughly at home in the slowest or most skeletal of tempi – and the resultant trio sound, though capable of robustness, has an overall evanescent, almost will-o’-the-wisp quality – again, classic ECM.