'Tuned In' review: Albanian tunes sparkle on 'Matane Malit'

'Matane Malit' by Elina Duni Quartet

"Matane Malit" by Elina Duni Quartet

“Matane Malit,” Elina Duni Quartet (ECM)

Every nation should be so lucky as to have its folk tunes interpreted the way Elina Duni renders the songs of her native Albania on “Matane Malit” (“Beyond the Mountain”).

Her spellbinding singing and the accessible jazz of the Elina Duni Quartet combine for a sound that transcends the language barrier (and obviously Albanian presents a huge language barrier). A press release for “Matane Malit” says these traditional songs are about, “lovers, heroes, workers, shepherds, exiles, songs of resistance.” The tracks are frequently solemn, occasionally driving and typically underscored by respectful restraint that loosens just often enough for the quartet to flaunt its power.

Duni’s beautiful voice is key — full-bodied, though not exploited, and able to shift from blackness to light with ethereal ease.

Yet the instrumentalists should not be dismissed: Colin Vallon’s piano is exquisite, usually played with subtle deference to the vocalist while sometimes stealing her spotlight. And the rhythm section of Patrice Moret (double bass) and Norbert Pfammatter (drums) provide provocative contrast, lending movement and energy for Duni and Vallon as they mesmerize with glorious melodies.

The balance isn’t always perfect — the quartet is overly understated in the minimalism of “Celo Mezani” and “Kur Te Kujtosh” while the lively Pfammatter showcase of “U Rrit Vasha” is almost too much of a good thing. And when Duni is in somber mode and Vallon is teetering on drones, the release sounds a bit like cocktail-lounge music, if good cocktail-lounge music.

Still, listeners won’t have to listen too closely to hear depth by way of the emotional heft in “Kjani Trima,” the alluring “Kristal,” the refreshing overt expressiveness of “Ra Kambana,” the dovetailing of the nervous tension of the singer and her rhythm section on “Ere Pranverore.”

And ultimately, “Matane Malit” pays a grand tribute to a tiny nation.

Rating (five possible): 4

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