Elina Duni / Rob Luft ‘Lost Ships’ CD (ECM) 5/5

Lost Ships is a stunningly exquisite collaboration between Albanian/Swiss singer Elina Duni and English guitarist Rob Luft. Making their collaborative debut, they are joined by British multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas – contributing here on piano and percussion, and Swiss flugelhornist Matthieu Michel. Something of an unexpected delight, the duo’s programme of songs of love and exile has been gathering momentum since 2017 when the singer and guitarist first began making music together during a series of workshops in Lausanne. Recorded earlier this year at Studios la Buissonne in the South of France, the album benefits from the high production values we have come to expect from ECM. Yet perhaps just as important, if not more so, is the way this recording brings to life an energy, an emotive passion, in such a compelling way.

Born in Tirana, Albania, Elina Duni made her first steps on the stage as a singer aged five. In 1992 she settled in Geneva, where she started studying classical piano and subsequently discovered jazz. Her studies in Bern led to the formation of her quartet, lasting over ten years. The band’s interweaving of Balkan folk songs and improvising on albums including two ECM releases was widely praised. Londoner Rob Luft, also drawing on a large range of influences, began playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, home to a very long list of aspiring musicians over the years, before going on to study at the Royal Academy of Music. His skills as a composer, improviser and arranger can be heard on his two albums recorded and released on Edition Records. Duni and Luft are co-authors of several pieces on Lost Ships, including the title track, “Numb”, “Brighton”, “Flying Kites”, “Lux” and “Empty Streets”. Material for the album is also drawn from many idioms and locations: “This is an album about contemporary issues facing us all”, Duni and Luft explain. “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…” Alluding to in song texts and in choice of sources, the migration crisis is a central issue to many of the tunes sung here, yet there is also a warm romanticism that comes across in many of the pieces performed.

The significant contribution of Matthieu Michel and Fred Thomas cannot be underestimated on this session. The duo offers sympathetic and intuitive support to Duni and Luft, their own voices blending quite beautifully with the lead duo to create a thoughtful, engrossing atmosphere that highlights a sense of togetherness and understanding, crucial to the delicacy and meaning of the tunes being performed. The album’s opening tune “Bella Ci Dormi” is a perfect example of how well these musicians work together. Thomas’ piano combines wonderfully with Luft’s guitar, with Duni’s voice raising the hairs on the back of my neck. A simply stunning piece of music. Tunes like “Brighton” reflect the gorgeous nature of the music, with Michel’s flugelhorn picking up the melody and adding a soft, alluring atmosphere, matched by Luft’s sensitive, yet inventive guitar playing. The new combine seamlessly with the old, with a gentle, emotive freshness blowing sumptuously through tunes like “I’m a fool to want you”, “The Wayfaring Stranger” and “Hier Encore”. Tune after tune of gracious and glorious musical storytelling. Whilst the pairing of Duni and Luft may initially seem an unlikely one, this has to be one of the most inspired musical unions in ECM’s recent history.

Being familiar with Rob Luft’s stellar music through Edition Records, I was eager to hear him in a different setting. He doesn’t disappoint. His skills on this album are clear to hear, offering an understated, thoughtful and resoundingly beautiful backdrop for Duni’s glorious vocals. And it is ultimately, Duni’s mesmerising voice that draws the listener in, as she takes us with her on a journey through these tunes. It’s almost as if she’s holding our hands, letting us touch the music she gives us through her stunning voice. She allows us to be a part of the stories she sings, bringing a feeling of genuine warmth and sincerity. And there really aren’t many singers who can achieve that.

Mike Gates

Read also:
Elina Duni ‘Partir’ CD (ECM)
Elina Duni Quartet ‘Dallëndyshe’ CD (ECM)