REVIEW: Rob Luft & Elina Duni Duo with special guest Kit Downes at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Elina Duni and Rob Luft
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Rob Luft & Elina Duni Duo with special guest Kit Downes
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Sunday 29 July. Review by Sebastian Maniura) 

At a lunchtime set on a lazy Sunday afternoon when the heat wave over London had finally broken, one might have forgiven any musician, especially one on a fairly heavy touring scheduled, for taking it easy. However, it quickly became apparent that Elina Duni, the Albanian jazz singer and composer, had no intention of coasting on her undeniable talents. The afternoon began with a set featuring her and British guitarist Rob Luft. Starting with a rendition of Vaj Si Kenka, a traditional Albanian song, the performers immediately captivated their audience. Luft's warm chordal harmonies and fast paced lines created a comfortable bed for Duni's strong, rustic vocals to explore the song fully.

The collaborative project between Duni and Luft, Songs of Love and Exile, began in 2017 and Elina announced this as the first London outing of the duo. In the second set they were joined by Kit Downes on piano. The performance consisted of a mixture of jazz and traditional folk songs, sung in several languages, as well as material from Elina's new solo album Partir. This stripped back, intimate show was a real musical journey.

Elina Duni's vocals were impeccable. In songs such as N'at Zaman her lines exuded fragile solemnity and poise, clearly telling the song's story. Storytelling was an overarching theme of the afternoon, even though a lot of the songs where not in English, one could feel their meaning through Elina's vocalism. The audience were very moved by some of the songs, at times during the second set even beginning to sing along with her. On Couleur Café, in contrast, Duni's vocals were effervescent, the joyous revelry in this number exhibited her technical and emotional range.

In the first set Rob Luft did splendid work accompanying the songs so as to leave enough space for Duni, but also to give each song its own solid grounding and feel. He did this with the help of a loop pedal which he used to build up rhythms and harmonies, and even to accompany his solos. He built little worlds of sound, adjusting the volume ever so slightly to balance each piece. His solos were energetic, with fast, arpeggiated passages that drew noticeable intakes of breath from the audience. In the more contemplative numbers, such as Meu Amour, Luft left plenty of space for Duni to explore the silence surrounding her vocal lines.

Joining a duo in the second half of such an intimate setting is quite a challenge, but Kit Downes' subtle brilliance shone through. His work on Time On My Hands was a consummate illustration of balancing two chordal instruments without the harmony sounding muddy or crowded. Sticking to a lot of higher register work on piano, his tone was crystal clear, glistening over the top of Rob's warm comping and adding to Duni's vocal line playfully. When Downes played the lower registers of the piano, it was in a way that mirrored Luft's tone. On The Water Is Wide Kit's solo lines interweaved with Rob's guitar backing, at times making it difficult to tell the two instruments apart.

The restrained line-up of voice, guitar and piano made for a surprisingly diverse timbral palate. On numbers such as La Javanaise, Downes and Luft swapped roles during different parts of the song: sometimes Kit would play the bass line and focus more on the rhythmic aspect of the music allowing Rob to explore the upper harmonies and lines, and vice versa. Duni often added vocalised drum beats and backing vocals to solos. On The Wayfaring Stranger Elina took this to new heights, performing a percussive vocalise solo whilst miming the whole thing as if she had a drum in her hands.

In the more reflective numbers the small scale line-up allowed the musicians to really fill out the harmonies and explore the possibilities of the music without worrying about the chance of it being too busy. Even though a lot of the tunes were gentle and, at times, melancholic this didn't affect the atmosphere in the room. Elina's presence on stage created a calm, respectful, even meditative air which didn’t preclude the upbeat numbers from having a real impact. It was a pleasure to spend Sunday afternoon in the company of three accomplished and sensitive artists.

Elina Duni and Rob Luft return to the UK on 9 November at the Fleece in Colchester, on 16 November at Cadogan Hall and 18 Novembe at the Omnibus Theatre for the EFG London Jazz Festival.

LINKS: Elina Duni's new album Partir

Rob Luft's most recent album Riser

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