CD review

Elina Duni, Rob Luft – ‘Lost Ships’

Elina Duni, Rob Luft – Lost Ships
(ECM 0739322. CD review by John Arnett)

This collection of songs has an emotional force and atmosphere all of its own. Singer Elina Duni has released two earlier quartet albums on ECM as well as the 2018 solo outing Partir. Her collaboration with guitarist Rob Luft, which began in 2017, really comes to fruition here, augmented and enhanced by the flugelhorn of Matthieu Michel  and the piano and percussion of Fred Thomas, in very distinctive and pleasing combination.

There are six Duni/Luft originals and six interpretations, drawing upon diverse folk traditions (Albanian, Italian, American) alongside ballads by Frank Sinatra and Charles Aznavour. The singer appears to be equally at home in four languages – the very diversity reflecting a lyrical concern with migration, displacement and the threat to nature, touched upon in the sleeve notes. The mood is sometimes melancholic certainly, but also spirited and spacious.

Opening track Bella Ci Dormi is a traditional Southern Italian ballad, and sets the sultry Mediterranean tone nicely, with its combination of yearning and swooping contralto voice, acoustic piano accompaniment and tantalisingly brief guitar flights. Original composition Brighton, which follows, confounds expectations by being sung in French, a sinuous and captivating melody over guitar ostinato. It introduces both Matthieu Michel’s beautiful flugelhorn playing and fine solo, and the underpinning percussion of Fred Thomas, building with subtlety and restraint.

The Sinatra/Wolf/Herron ballad, I’m a Fool to Want You, begins with just voice and ethereal guitar harmonics, pointedly establishing the tone of regret. Instrumentation and voice are perfectly matched and attuned here, with floaty guitar, flugelhorn and finally cymbals providing a sumptuous backdrop to the melody.

Title track Lost Ships has an appropriately eerie and dreamlike underwater quality, featuring sparse and at times ever so slightly dissonant piano and swelling waves of guitar. Elina Duni’s voice here, and generally, is pure and without ornamentation, in a way reminiscent of June Tabor or Sandy Denny. American traditional song The Wayfaring Stranger picks up the theme of destination-less travelling, in a slow and haunting rendition, but with a message of reconciliation and peace. The flugelhorn echoes and embellishes the melody to great effect.

Original compositions Flying Kites and Lux – with their reflections on childhood happiness, the natural world and the playing of light upon it – both have an incantatory quality, with twisting melodies. Both tracks feature searching and exhilarating guitar solos that just seem to arise naturally, rather like the river that is the central image of Lux.

There are plenty more highlights. Lively and percussive, the traditional Albanian song Kur më del në derë (when you appear at the door) immediately transports the listener a long way east, introducing an altogether different soundscape, set of scales and time signature. It makes for a pleasing contrast, as does the next song N’at Zaman, also traditional Albanian (Elina Duni was born and spent her childhood in Tirana) but this time a slower, mournful ballad. The journey draws to a close in France, with Charles Aznavour’s wistful chanson Hier Encore (the words are almost comically gloomy when you read them in English). The beautiful acoustic guitar accompaniment by Rob Luft left me thinking I would have liked to have heard more of this. No matter – the album is a pleasure from start to finish.

LINK: Live review of Duni and Luft from 2018

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