Elina Duni (with Rob Luft, Matthieu Michel, Fred Thomas) – A Time To Remember
(ECM Records – ECM2781. Album review by Graham Spry)
It is always a treat to hear a new album from Swiss-Albanian singer Elina Duni. Duni was born in Tirana, Albania, and has become known for her sensitive performance of traditional Albanian songs. Her earlier albums on ECM Records featured achingly sad tunes that may have been of greatest appeal to Europe’s Albanian diaspora. On A Time To Remember – her second album with this quartet featuring long-time musical partner Rob Luft on guitar, Matthieu Michel on flugelhorn and Fred Thomas on piano and drums – the repertoire is much wider, sitting within a broad jazz vocal tradition.
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Duni has become increasingly confident as a composer as well as a performer, particularly as one half of a song-writing duo with Luft. They have written five of the 12 songs on the album together, with lyrics in both French and English, including the title track ‘A Time To Remember’. All their songs invoke an ambience of nostalgia and times past, most obviously in the title track but also notably on ‘Whispers Of Water’ and ‘Dawn’. The most outstanding of their songs may well be the beautifully melancholic ‘Sunderland’, the lyrics for which evoke a seaside place some listeners might recognise.
The album also includes Albanian and Kosovan repertoire, with pieces such as ‘Mora Testinë’ showcasing how accomplished Duni is as a folk singer (while Michel’s flugelhorn provides a jaunty refrain to the lyrics of this haunting love song). ‘Mallengjimi’, by Albanian songwriter Rashid Krasniqi, translates as ‘Nostalgia’, fitting nicely with the album’s overall themes; the tune’s sensitive lyrics may well reflect Duni’s personal feelings towards her home country. As with those tracks in English and French, Duni’s vocal delivery evokes meaning such that the listener need not understand the words to understand the song.
‘First Song’ is written by Charlie Haden and was one of his personal favourites, but it is in Abbey Lincoln’s lyrics that Duni invests a wistful passion echoed by the ascending notes on Luft’s guitar. A surprising inclusion may well be Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’, a tune whose bittersweet sorrow is all-too-often drowned out by power-ballad arrangements, but not here. The nostalgic theme is maintained in the final song, the Broadway tune ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’, which has been covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Bing Crosby, but whose lyrics are given fresh poignancy in this stripped-down version of just vocals and guitar.
A musically successful album is not only one where the musicians perform well and the songs are well-chosen, but where there is a consistent overall feel without being one-dimensional. It isn’t surprising to learn that the concept for ‘A Time To Remember’ came from a visit that Duni and Luft made to the Sinai Desert whose stark emptiness inspired nostalgic introspection. The album was recorded at La Buissonne Studios in Southern France to which much of its beautiful sound and mixing can be credited.
The quartet are mostly touring the album through Switzerland this autumn, but there will be an opportunity to catch them performing at the Stapleford Granary Arts Centre in Cambridge in December.