Matanë Malit, ECM 2012

Elina Duni Quartet
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Female singer plus piano trio equals jazz album, right? Wrong. Elina Duni’s debut album is a tribute to her Albanian heritage, and while there are elements of jazz in the arrangements (and certainly in the instrumentation), there’s little to nothing jazzy about her singing or about the songs. These are Balkan folk songs, some of them light in tone and content and others exploring and elucidating the deep cultural ruptures that have characterized the region’s history for centuries: topics include exile, sheepherding, political resistance, romantic love, and labor. But unless you either speak Albanian or follow along with the translations in the liner notes, you’ll have to divine these subtleties from the music itself — and luckily, Duni is the kind of singer who can communicate an awful lot of subtlety with just a gentle change of dynamics or a shift in timbre. She sings with almost no vibrato and a minimum of ornamentation, her voice ringing out like a glass bell pitched in the alto range. Then there are the time signatures, which you may not notice unless you’re trying to dance: “Kur Të Kujtosh,” for example, seems to be written in 11/8. Although tempos vary somewhat and instrumental textures do as well, it’s hard to identify highlights on this remarkable album — all of the tracks share a similar feeling of haunting regret, and all of them are deeply beautiful. This is one of those very rare albums that doesn’t insist on your undivided attention, but rewards it richly anyway. ~ Rick Anderson