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Elina Duni & Rob Luft: Songs Of Love And Exile

Photo credit: Blerta Kambo

Chris May By

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I've always used my music to build bridges between people. In the Balkans memories of war are not far away. Sometimes it is the same song that people say, this is our song, this is Turkish, no this is Greek, this is Serbian, no this is Albanian. I come from a Europe where nationalisms are very strong but where actually people are so much alike.
—Elina Duni
The British guitarist Rob Luft has already released one of the great albums of 2020 with Life Is The Dancer (Edition), which came out back in the spring. Now Luft notches up another 2020 highlight with the collaborative Lost Ships (ECM), jointly conceived and co-led with the Albanian-Swiss singer Elina Duni. By turns passionate and grave, serene and desolate, the album is a full spectrum words-and-music landmark release from two of the most distinctive talents on the European scene.

Thematically, Lost Ships is a kind of sequel to Duni's previous ECM album, 2018's Partir, which explored the humanitarian crisis which was then, as now, sweeping across Europe as refugees from Africa and the Middle East journeyed northwards in search of better lives. Lost Ships revisits that theme, and also weaves environmental concerns and issues of love (and lust) into the mix. The title refers to the unconscionable number of little boats which sink as they sail north across the Mediterranean and the English Channel carrying refugees, and the unknown number of lives that as a consequence have been, and continue to be, lost.

The album is composed of six originals—co-written by Duni and Luft—plus another half-dozen songs from Albania, Italy, France and the US, drawing on folk material, jazz standards and chanson. Reflecting the pro-world citizen, anti-nationalist orientation of Lost Ships, Duni sings in four languages—English, Albanian, French and Italian—and translations of the non-English lyrics are given in the CD booklet. The duo are joined by the Swiss flugelhornist Matthieu Michel and the British multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas on piano and drums.

In their liner note, Duni and Luft observe that, despite the existential concerns that are explored in the lyrics, there is a lightness that pervades the album. The note concludes with a quote from "Lux," one of their originals: "In every tear, there is a light that shows." And so it does on the first eleven tracks. Depending on your age, you may or may not discern that light in the closer, Charles Azvanour's affecting elegy "Hier Encore" ("Only Yesterday"). Duni and Luft use the song as an encore when performing in Francophone locations and often see people leaving the venues in tears. (If an antidote is required, try spinning Edith Piaf's version of Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.")

In this interview, Duni and Luft tell us how they met and about the beliefs—cultural and socio-political—which inform their music. They conclude by each talking about six jazz albums that have made lasting impacts on their lives.

All About Jazz: Before we get into the album, please tell us how the two of you began working together.

Rob Luft: In 2016, I entered the Montreux Jazz Festival guitar competition. I came second. It was adjudicated by John McLaughlin and I got to do a little performance with him after the competition. It was all very exciting and as part of the prize I was given a week-long workshop in Lausanne in early 2017. There were all sorts of jazz luminaries involved—Marcus Miller, Trilok Gurtu, Kurt Rosenwinkel—and also the great American jazz singer Al Jarreau. But a week before the workshop started, Al Jarreau passed away. There was all this frenzy to fill his place and they found the jazz-soul singer Patti Austin. But she lost her passport at Los Angeles airport. So the day before the workshop began they still needed to fill the post. The director of the workshop was the French-Israeli pianist Yaron Herman and he is a good friend of Elina and so with less than twenty-four hours to go he was able to get Elina, who was Swiss based at the time, to join the team.

AAJ: And the rest is history.

RL: Our relationship was just professional that week. We connected initially over our shared loved of Bill Frisell and West African music. A few months later she called and said she was coming to London and we met up and got on really well. Then there was a gig that came out of nowhere in North Macedonia in late 2017. It was in the west of the country, which is Albanian speaking. Which is another story. Anyway, we did the concert and since then we've been working together, touring, and Elina moved to London and we've got a place together and done lots of one-off gigs with people like Kit Downes and Huw Warren and met all these great musicians on the London scene. We've got all sorts of ideas up our sleeves for future projects together.

AAJ: What is your songwriting process? Does Rob write the tunes and Elina the lyrics or is it more interactive than that?

Elina Duni: It is all totally collaborative. What is different from song to song is that one of us starts with an idea, like I might come up with a melody and some chords—I mostly compose on the piano—and some lyrics, and I show it to Rob and we take it from there, working on it together. Or Rob might come with an idea on the guitar, a melody and harmonies, and then we work on it together. The beginning is always one or the other of us and then it's collaborative. I write the lyrics but then I always ask Rob, what do you think of this or that and he always helps out with ideas and grammar. We create our own sound and world and we're in this ideal sharing process.

AAJ: In what respects would you say Lost Ships is a continuation of Partir and in what respects is it a new direction?

ED: It is a continuation in terms of the thematics of the material—exile, departure—because those are things that always resonate in me and which are unfortunately everywhere around us. Every time I look at the Mediterranean sea I can't stop thinking about it. It's a way for me to give a voice to those who have no voice or to say to other people, don't forget about it, don't ignore these things that are happening. So that is the bridge with Partir. What is different I think is that it is a much more contemporary sound and way of looking at it all. Because half the songs are originals. For me, Lost Ships is a new start, it's new horizons. Composing with Rob makes my music more contemporary, or so I think, makes it belong to these times.

RL: That nails it pretty well. I'd just add that Partir focuses more on the Albanian language and we decided to make Lost Ships more universal by composing the majority of the songs in English because we want to touch as many people as we can with the words.

AAJ: Cultural nationalists use music as a way of dividing people. But it seems to me that music is even more effective as a way of bringing people together.

RL: Absolutely. I could speak for hours about that. One thing that is very important to us is the concept of an open Europe, a Europe without borders. Whether that may be relating to the story of Boris Johnson and Brexit or the story of the west Balkans, which still haven't received accession into the European Union and are still very much the outliers of Europe. Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia. These countries are so close to us. Music unifies us in the sense that Elina sings in English and Albanian and we play some traditional folk songs from Kosovo. This album brings a lot of different nationalities together, France and the south of Italy too. We've been kind of sad this year, particularly seeing European nations closing their borders to their European brothers and sisters, whether for quarantining or political measures. It's shocking to see and it's been like that ever since the Brexit vote in 2016. We will always believe that Europe is our continent, we really believe in it as one thing, and that is reflected in our music. I feel very strongly about this.

AAJ: I felt physically sick when the Brexit referendum result was announced. And very angry. I still am.

RL: I am furious. I was playing in Turin in north Italy on the night of the vote and I sat in the hotel after the gig with a half-Italian, half-Russian bassist called Misha Oblomobavo and we watched the results coming through and we sat up all night and in the morning we were both almost in tears. Then we had to get on a train halfway across north Italy to Venice, and were saying to all our Italian friends how shocked and how saddened and embarrassed we were. It's something I'm so passionate about that I have had to go down the route of getting my Irish citizenship reinstated, through my lovely mother who is originally from County Cork. So hopefully I'll get my Irish passport and will still be able to tour freely on the continent.

ED: I would like to add that while music can divide and unify, as you said, it can also be a tool for dictatorship and for bad propaganda. For instance, in Albania during the communist dictatorship, you couldn't listen to music like the Beatles, to Western music, it was forbidden. You could listen to some classical music, really classical classical like Beethoven or Mozart, and maybe some Stravinsky because of the Russian connection. But if you would listen to modern Italian or English music your neighbours could denounce you to the police and you would go to prison. And not only that, the regime destroyed the folk music. This happened all over Eastern Europe during the communist era. They took the folk songs and changed the lyrics into propaganda or modified the complexities of the songs and made something very easy listening out of them. Some of the folk songs I sing I had to research in some ethnologues I found in Germany where some songs were archived with their original lyrics. It's crazy how dictatorship can modify the identity of folk music.

AAJ: How did people in Albania react when you first returned and sang these songs?

ED: Some of the people knew them but with the communist lyrics, and the older generation were so touched to hear the original lyrics again. My mother, for instance, hated Albanian music at the time because she associated it with the dictatorship and it was the only music she had been able to listen to when she was growing up. They had to listen to it, it was playing everywhere all the time. This older generation came to me crying, saying thank you, you have given us back our music. My mum started liking some of my versions because it didn't remind her of the trauma of the dictatorship anymore. I could talk about this for hours and hours and I truly believe that music unifies us. I've always used my music to build bridges between different people and cultures. It is why I have always sung in different languages. Especially when you come from the Balkans where people say, I am better than you. There are big nationalisms there, memories of war are not far away. Sometimes it is the same song that people say, this is our song, this is Turkish, no this is Greek, this is Serbian, no this is Albanian. I come from a part of Europe where nationalisms are very strong but where actually people are so much alike.

AAJ: Despite the gravity of some of the subject matter, and because of the way you approach it, listening to the album is an uplifting experience. There's a line in "Lux" which I particularly love. "In every tear, there is a light that shows." Though depending on your age, you might or might not find that light in the closing track, Charles Azvanour's "Hier Encore." If you're old enough you might think, oh God, I've wasted my life and it's too late to go back and change it now.

ED: But me too, I find myself thinking that. And I'm still in my thirties! So don't you worry.

RL: Every time we play that song in France, people are crying. We always play it in Francophone locations as an encore and people go out of the room weeping whether they're twenty or seventy. Don't worry.

AAJ: Don't you think chanson is a wonderful blend of accessibility and depth?

RL: I've only got into it really during the last four years, with Elina. I have grown to love people like Serge Gainsbourg and Azvanour and Léo Ferré, to adore them for the lyrics. They're so poetic and the music is also so deep. They're real artists. It's kind of a shame that it's not quite universally recognised, especially in the Anglophone world because of the lyrics. Sometimes it's lost in translation. But I'm totally enamoured by Gainsbourg and Léo Ferré for example.

AAJ: Your own lyrics are of the same quality I think. "Lost Ships," for instance, seamlessly weaves together the refugee and ecological crises we face and does it poetically, totally avoiding crude agitprop.

ED: Thank you. This song started to grow in me two years ago. I was swimming in the Mediterranean in Albania, and I was having this thought we all have sometimes, what if a shark comes and grabs me? We have this deep fear of creatures in the sea. I was laughing at myself, thinking, don't worry, there are no more sharks here, in fact there are no more fishes in the sea here. And my second thought was, yeah, but there are other things in the sea, corpses, dead bodies. So I started this idea on the guitar, with those two thoughts. Then I showed the song to Rob and he worked on it. What I find wonderful in this track is how Rob and Fred play the chorus, the harmonies and the arpeggios sound like the sea, it has this wavelike, rippling sound. I think what they do there is pretty amazing. And the lyrics are very close to me, because I have always dreamed of having a house by the sea, and I think of the fishes and the whales that are not there anymore and the lost ships and lost people. It's the first song we composed for this album. It is the foundation of it. It was very clear to me that it should be the title track.

RL: I was also very touched by the concept of the lyric. I've been working with an organisation in London called Play For Progress. It's a group of young women who have come together to work with refugees who have come mostly from the Middle East and North Africa. And some of them actually made that journey across the Mediterranean and they have told me first hand about it. So when Elina came to me with this idea I said, we really have to make something of this, because it is something so close to my heart as well. It's the bedrock of the whole project, as Elina says.

AAJ: Thank you both. We'll finish with your album choices.

ROB LUFT: SIX ALL-TIME FAVOURITE ALBUMS

As we've just released an album on ECM Records, that prompts me to include a couple of ECM albums. But I'm not going to mention the obvious ones, like The Köln Concert or Travels. I'm thinking of ECM albums that are maybe off the beaten track.

Eivind Aarset
Dream Logic
ECM, 2012

This is effectively a duo album by the guitarist Eivind Aarset and the electronicist Jan Bang. It's an album I put on when I'm travelling, when I'm looking out of a train window, when I want to sleep at night. It's an album that really sounds like dreams, it's wonderful how it floats for forty-five, fifty minutes and teleports you to another place. The production is impeccable and the sound is so glistening.

John Coltrane
My Favorite Things
Atlantic, 1961

This is the album that got me into jazz when I was thirteen or fourteen. It's basically a modal jazz exploration and they're vamping away on two chords for half of the title track and Coltrane plays about three solos on it and the last one he plays, when it goes from major to minor, McCoy Tyner is vamping away and Elvin Jones is producing these fiery West African polyrhythms, and Coltrane just soars over the top. I came across it in my stepfather's vinyl collection and it was enough to infect me with the jazz bug.

Arve Henriksen
Cartography
ECM, 2008

A wonderful solo trumpet album with effects. The way he manipulates the trumpet sound with computer loops and samples is breathtaking. I love all that is it acoustic, is it electronic, is it digital, is it analogue stuff, it's a big thing with me.

Billie Holiday
Lady In Satin
Columbia, 1958

Billie Holiday made this with the Ray Ellis Orchestra, which is totally unexpected because he was a sort of light music, light entertainment arranger. It was her last album and her voice is breaking and of course the notorious version of "I'm A Fool To Want You" is on it, which Elina and I do on Lost Ships. This is where our mutual love of that song comes from.

Paul Motian Trio
It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago
ECM, 1985

With Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Mid-1980s with Bill on guitar synth in full flow. Magical textures and weaving saxophone and guitar lines, with Paul's timeless cymbal sound that you can hear on a Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett record. This an album that I always come back to.

Grant Green
Idle Moments
Blue Note, 1965

What an album. Late night, turn the lights down, some nice Italian food and a glass of good red wine, and listen to Grant Green and some chilled out Joe Henderson just before he went into those virtuoso Inner Urge jazz odysseys. The way he plays with Grant's guitar is just timeless. If you want to get a blues lover or a rock 'n' roll guitarist into jazz, this is probably a good first album for them to hear.

ELINA DUNI: SIX ALL-TIME FAVOURITE ALBUMS

I'm going to start with the two albums that got me into jazz.

Miles Davis
Kind Of Blue
Columbia, 1959

This was a slap in my face. I was seventeen and I already knew a bit of jazz, like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. But then I heard Kind Of Blue and I was in shock. It was the first time I had heard modal jazz. I heard this warmth, it was like the music was a blanket that you could put around you and close your eyes and everything would change around you. I was transported by the sound. It was life changing for me.

Charlie Haden and Carla Bley
The Ballad Of The Fallen
ECM, 1983

Again, I was about seventeen. There was a record store with secondhand CDs and I was just browsing and I saw a title that sounded very poetic and beautiful to me. I bought it just because I loved the title. I didn't know Charlie Haden or ECM. And this is where I discovered the song "Silence." The sound of the album is just amazing. At the time I used to smoke, and I spent so many hours at my window, smoking away and listening to this album. For me it was very emotional music.

Anouar Brahem
Blue Maqams
ECM, 2017

I totally love Django Bates on this album. I think what he does is outstanding. I mean, they all play great, but he really reaches me. I mostly knew Django from humourous music before. I find this album timeless. I think it must have been Manfred Eicher's idea to put them altogether: Anouar, Django, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette. It's a genius idea. A great, great album.

Bill Frisell
East/West
Elektra Nonesuch, 2005

The first album I heard by Bill Frisell. When I heard "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" I was blown away. I love this album. It's a live album with an amazing trio. Rob and I love this guy because he has something so universal and he appeals to people who are not musicians as much as to musicians, and for me that is genius. I don't know how he does it. He's deep and never does too much, he just goes to the essentials.

Sheila Jordan
Portrait Of Sheila
Blue Note, 1962

It was Sheila Jordan's first album and then for years she stayed without singing. Steve Swallow is on bass, Barry Galbraith on guitar and Denzil Best on drums. It's an amazing album. It was the first time I heard somebody singing jazz standards in such a way, she wasn't scatting but everything she did was so free, so flexible, so natural and authentic. I could really relate to that and I couldn't stop listening to it. For me, it's one of the greatest vocal albums ever done. It was so different, so fresh.

Sidsel Endresen and Bugge Wesseltoft
Out Here. In There.
Jazzland, 2002

They did three albums together, each of which I love, but this is my favourite. I started listening to them fourteen or fifteen years ago and it would make me feel like I was a teenager again. I would wake up to the music and I would go to sleep with it and for two or three years this music was the soundtrack to my life. They would sing a pop song and a jazz standard and funk jazz, everything was possible, flexible, open, one song could be one minute, another could be six minutes, there is electronic stuff and acoustic stuff and everything fits. For me it was very, very inspiring. Also Sidsel Endresen inspires me by the way she works with her sound and how she places her voice. And Bugge is an amazing musician. I have had the luck to play with him and when you play with him it is like you have known him forever. I think this is one of the greatest duos ever.

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