I was utterly beguiled by Elina Duni the first time I heard her sing, which was on the ECM debut of her longtime quartet, 2012’s Matanë Malit. On that first album and the follow-up Dallëndyshe with Colin Vallon, Patrice Moret and Norbert Pfammatter, a group that lasted for more than 10 years, the Albanian-Swiss singer interwove Balkan folk songs with jazz arrangements. She branched out into jazz, folk, and art songs from other traditions on her solo Partir project, and Lost Ships started out as a collaboration with British guitarist Rob Luft to continue the Partir idea, with Luft adding guitar, electronics and effects. But along the way it developed into more of a partnership, the guitar becoming another voice alongside Duni’s, and the two co-writing several pieces to add to the mix of jazz standards and folk songs from several traditions.
And they’ve added two additional collaborators, British multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas on piano and percussion, and Swiss flugelhornist Matthieu Michel, who made such a strong contribution to this year’s Looking at Sounds by Michel Benita. I found Matthieu’s warm, lyrical horn playing impossible to resist on that project, and it’s much the same here. It’s a sonic marriage made in heaven when he and Duni sing in unison on the jazzy French chanson-style song “Brighton,” co-written by Duni and Luft, inspired by the wind and sky and waves at the classic British beach resort.
Duni has such a gift. She sings multi-lingually – in nine languages on Partir but only four on Lost Ships – Italian, English, French and Albanian. Not only does she shine on technical enunciation in each tongue, she also brings heightened powers of emotional resonance to whatever song she sings, in whatever language. Witness the aching longing that comes through in the opener “Bella Ci Dormi,” a traditional Italian song translated as “Beauty, You Sleep.” (Luft on guitar and Thomas on piano also play a lovely and sensitive pair of matched solos midway through this one.) And her treatment of the Sinatra classic “I’m A Fool To Want You” is exquisite, matched by the delicate accompaniment of her ensemble. She brings a delicacy and vulnerability to this song that heightens the pathos more than a more vigorous treatment ever could. I think of Linda Ronstadt’s cover in which she comes off as perhaps a silly fool; Duni emerges as nothing less than an abject fool who nonetheless quietly revels in her inability to control her longing.
The theme behind Lost Ships slowly emerges over the program’s 12 songs. These are songs of loss: lost loves, lost places, lost homes. “This is an album about contemporary issues facing us all,” Duni and Luft write in a brief introductory note in the album’s booklet. “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, places that no longer exist or continue to exist only as a fragment of our imagination.”
“Flying Kites” may express this most directly, Duni singing the poignant, symbolic lyrics of nostalgia, framed in memories of an innocent childhood. Luft’s guitar solo employs soaring runs that echo the lyric’s freedom but with a blue tinge that keeps the sentiment anchored.
The theme emerges most strongly on the two songs that sit smack in the middle of the program. The American folk gospel song “The Wayfaring Stranger” is an obvious fit with its lyrics about longing to go “home” to see lost loved ones who’ve gone before. Luft and Thomas on guitar and piano provide a simple accompaniment, and Michel gives an aching and tender horn solo at the midpoint. And the original song “Lost Ships,” the title track sung in English, is a sorrowful song of longing for companionship and belonging: “I will dream of a blue home where the limit is the sky … I wanna be a fish, but there’s no more fishes in the sea.” Guitar and piano arpeggios paint a picture of sparkling freedom that contrasts with the sadness of the lyrics.
Still my favorite Duni mode is the Albanian folk song given a jazz arrangement, and the two examples of that on Lost Ships do not disappoint. The two come together toward the end of the album: “Kur Më Del Në Derë (When You Appear At Your Doorstep)” is a fast-paced folk dance tune, the lyrics about disappointment in love (of course), with nimble drumming and lots of piano-guitar interplay. “N’at Zaman (When The Storm)” though on a similar theme is a slow ballad, the lyrics telling of how a storm outside mirrors the singer’s inner turmoil.” Luft doesn’t use much reverb on this album, which makes his use of deep echo on his brief solo here quite effective.
The album closes with an unbelievably melancholy feeling in a tender, blue duet by Duni and Luft, Charles Aznavour’s “Hier Encore (Only Yesterday).” Aznavour died just a little over two years ago at the age of 94, having written, recorded and sung more than 1,000 songs in a long and storied career. In this one he looks back with regret on a youth misspent, the lyrics sounding in French even sadder than they are. As a French Armenian who lived through two world wars, he perhaps knew as much as any the sadness of exile, loss of home, and passage of time.
In closing I’ll also mention the lovely song “Lux,” a song of looking back at a lost love but finding hope in the natural world: And as the river flows / The mystery of tomorrow grows / And yesterday’s sorrow / Vanishes as the wind blows. It’s great to have a new Elina Duni album as we head into the cold and dark and damp of winter, especially one that gives us such grounded optimism. No matter what time will make of us / In every tear there is a light that shows.