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Elina Duni: Partir

John Kelman By

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Sometimes a change in musical direction is instigated by life experiences; sometimes it's driven by nothing more than choice. Following two recordings for ECM Records with her Switzerland-based quartet, Elina Duni makes a significant directional shift with the entirely solo Partir. Given the generally introspective nature of 2012's Matanë Malit (Over the Mountain) and 2015's Dallёndyshe (The Swallow), it's no surprise to find Partir even more intimate still, the Albanian-born singer accompanied by nothing more than her relatively spare but carefully constructed contributions on piano, guitar and percussion.

Partir's genesis stems, indeed, from both a life change and a simple matter of choice. Duni had already fashioned a career as a solo artist, its genesis dating back to 2008, when she began performing songs in-between readings by her mother, novelist/poet/essayist Bessa Myftiu. With the singer largely self-accompanying on guitar or percussion, she gradually built a repertoire, leading to solo concerts where the singer connected songs with her own texts, driven conceptually by the growing refugee crisis and more direct impact of her own relocation. With the dissolution of a longstanding personal relationship leaving the future of her recent quartet, at the very least, in temporary stasis, now seems like the perfect time to document Duni's solo work.

Partir's twelve songs are sung in a surprisingly expansive nine languages, and delivered with extraordinary linguistic credibility, with much of the material drawn from Albanian, Kosovan, Armenian, Macedonian, Swiss and Arabian-Andalusian traditions.

But even Duni's approach to the album's four relatively contemporaneous songs is redolent of Partir's pan-cultural undercurrents. The opening "Amara Terra Mia" ("Bitter Land of Mine") may have been written by Italian singer, songwriter, actor, guitarist (and, later in life, politician) Domenico Modugno, but in its rubato intro it's impossible not to hear the musical embellishments that are part of this Balkan expat's DNA. And as when her simple, nylon-string guitar accompaniment provides the song a more definitive rhythm, Duni's haunting, painfully plaintive voice renders the translation of its lyrics (provided in the CD booklet) as almost unnecessary, their aching loss felt through Duni's clear and deep connection with Modugno's prose.

Jacques Brel's "Je Ne Sais Pas" is delivered with uncharacteristic understatement rather than its more typical melodramatic context. Duni may punctuate the "I Don't Know" of the song's title with relative strength, but her more restrained whisper of each stanza's concluding "Mais je sais que je t'aime encore" ("but I know I love you still") renders this often-covered show tune as transcending mere performance and, instead, becoming something far more personal. As is also true of Portuguese songwriter Alain Oulman's "Meu Amor" ("My Love"), where Duni's delicate juxtaposition, with both voice and guitar, of subtle, tension-inducing rubato and a gentle heartbeat of a pulse, evokes the song's treatment of loss as clearly as its lyrics.

Duni's sole original contribution, "Let Us Dive In," is also Partir's lone English language piece. Suggestive of a burgeoning ability to compose lyrics both explicit and suggestive, its changes are filled with unexpected harmonic twists, even as Duni's approach to piano is as spare and understated as her vocal delivery, creating a broad sense of drama through an exacting approach to dynamics and painstaking embellishment.

19th century Egyptian songwriter Muḥammad ᾽Abd al-Raḥīm al-Maslūb's "Lamma Bada Yatathanna" ("When He Was Swaying") begins a cappella, with Duni's dark-hued voice stretching and compressing the words as their own form of evocation and emphasis, ultimately supported only by the opaque pulse of the singer's daf, a Middle Eastern frame drum. Duni's interpretation of the Kosovan traditional "Vishnja" ("The Cherry Tree"), on the other hand, is brought gently into the 21st century through her use of near-minimalist pianism with harmonies of a more contemporary bent, even as her voice feels at once both of a time and timeless.

The album's mix of sources, ranging from Arabian ("'Lamma Bada Yatathanna") to Yiddish ("'Ofyn Weg") only serves to highlight Duni's appreciation of the many dichotomies facing us in today's social and political climates, and a desire to use music to bring together rather than sow division. Drawing on songs learned in theater productions to ones known and loved over the years, what draws Partir's seemingly disparate, 48-minute repertoire together, beyond an underlying sense of longing that underscores its broader subject matter of pain and courage, love and loss, separation and new beginnings, is Duni's voice. Her nuanced delivery, underscored by a restraint that only serves to render the subject matter more immediate and captivating, captures the emotive subtlety of every word, of every note, colored with a delicate vibrato that suggests both strength and vulnerability, in equal measure.

If the future of Duni's quartet is currently uncertain, the many successes of Partir make clear that there are, indeed, many possibilities open to this talented 37 year-old singer, songwriter and instrumentalist. The only thing Partir is missing are the connective texts that Duni uses to bring each song to the next in performance. Still, with a series of tour dates lined up for the summer and fall, audiences across Europe will have the opportunity to experience the spare beauty and haunting melancholy of Partir in a proper concert context. In the meantime, even without those connective texts, ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher's ever-astute sequencing of Partir lends it its own narrative tissue, making it a complete, self-contained and thoroughly compelling experience for those not fortunate enough to find their way to a live Duni performance.

Track Listing: Amara Terra Mia; Let Us Dive In; Mel Amor; Lamma Bada Yatathanna; Vishnja; Lusnak Gisher; Oyfn Veg; Kanga E Krubetit; Ani Kaj Lulije; Vaj Si Kenka; Je Ne Sais Pas; Schönster Abestärn.

Personnel: Elina Duni: voice, piano, guitar, percussion.

Title: Partir | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: ECM Records


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