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New Album From English Guitarist Rob Luft, A Time To Remember

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JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to English guitarist Rob Luft about his new album with Albanian singer Elina Duni.

English guitarist, Rob Luft just released a new album on the ECM label with Albanian singer Elina Duni entitled A Time to Remember. This is a follow-up to their excellent first ECM recording Lost Ships.  Rob is very active in his hometown of London, England, and tours regularly, especially in Europe.  In this interview, I ask Rob about recording this new album as well as his general approach to composing and playing.


JB:  How old were you when you started to play jazz guitar and what was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist?

RL:  I started getting interested in jazz as a young teenager when I took a deep dive into my stepfather’s extensive vinyl collection. I was allured by the colorful cover of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1973 album Birds of Fire. I dropped the needle onto the LP and before I knew it, the sound of Billy Cobham’s thrashing cymbals & John McLaughlin’s pulsating guitar completely overwhelmed me! 

My first experience of live jazz in a concert setting was seeing the Allan Holdsworth trio live at the Mick Jagger Centre in South London, and that was similarly compelling! By that point, I think I had been bitten by the jazz bug.

There have been many milestones in my development over the past 15 years playing jazz guitar, but if I had to single out one thing, I would perhaps say having the opportunity to play with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Great Britain from 2009-2015 was of particular importance. Early on, I got the chance to play pieces such as Charlie Christian’s “Solo Flight” and Pat Metheny’s “First Circle” in a big band setting. This exposed me to the many and varied styles of guitar playing that fall under the jazz umbrella.

Rob Luft Photo by Dave Stapleton

JB:  Talk about your studies at the Royal Academy of Music and what is most helpful to you and why?

RL:  Studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music was absolutely unforgettable. I had the chance to watch Kenny Wheeler’s incredible big band rehearsing on campus several times, to take workshops with guitarists like John Abercrombie, to study with the great Scottish guitarist Jim Mullen (one of my original heroes on the instrument), and to top it all off, I was in the same school year as Jacob Collier. 

I think the most helpful part of my four years at the conservatory was simply being exposed to so much great jazz by visiting artists. When I arrived at the school at the age of 18, I was totally hooked on the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and I was fairly convinced that straight-ahead jazz guitar was my thing! However, masterclasses from the likes of Dave Holland, Django Bates & Dave Douglas, amongst many others, showed me other pathways and different ways of making music. 

JB:  To you personally, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

RL:  The album I always come back to is I Have The Room Above Her by Paul Motian, Bill Frisell & Joe Lovano. This trio is everything to me! Bill Frisell’s magical playing on this record inspires me to no end, and Paul Motian’s compositions are so evocative. Despite his composing his music at the piano, his songs happen to sit so perfectly on the fretboard. I love to study his songbook as the music is so open and always acts as a kind of springboard, giving me ideas to create my own original pieces.

Secondly, I think Dream Logic by Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronic mastermind Jan Bang has to get a mention. The sound world that Eivind creates here is just mind-blowing! I love the extended use of dark, dirge-like drones, long delays, and the layering of very many overdubs. It’s my go-to late-night ECM album, as it creates so many moods and conjures up so much emotion, which is for me what drew me to jazz music in the first place. Perhaps that’s the reason that albums like Kind of Blue and The Köln Concert have enjoyed universal popularity amongst jazz musicians and non-jazz musicians alike. 

Lastly, Gateway by John Abercrombie, Dave Holland & Jack DeJohnette is a perpetual favorite of mine. The sound of Abercrombie’s guitar wailing over Dave Holland’s bass ostinato throughout the opening track is synonymous with the sound of freedom to me. Those long, winding lines assisted by an ingenious use of the tremolo arm seamlessly blends shades of Jimi Hendrix with the jazz language of Jim Hall whilst overtones of Ornette Coleman pervade throughout! A timeless album for the ages.

JB:  Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career toward where it’s at today?

RL:  I was given the chance to perform for a week at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London in 2015 with British pianist and composer Django Bates, who reformed the legendary 1980s big band Loose Tubes for a series of reunion shows in the UK. The original guitarist, the great John Parricelli, was busy on another tour at that time, so this was a real watershed moment for me. I went on to tour with Django in Scandinavia in 2017 with his big band interpretation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band.  To this day, I still work with many of the other members of Loose Tubes, such as saxophonist Iain Ballamy, trumpeter Chris Batchelor & flutist Eddie Parker, all of whom are incredible musicians in their own right.

Secondly, I was lucky enough to win the Kenny Wheeler Prize upon graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in 2016, and this allowed me to release my own album via the British label Edition Records. In 2017 I went on to record a set of my original compositions at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath and my debut album, Riser, was released in July 2017. Since then, I’ve strengthened my connection with Dave Stapleton at Edition Records and I put out a second album in early 2020, entitled “Life Is The Dancer“. These records have given me the possibility to tour all over the UK and mainland Europe with my original music, which I count as a privilege and an honor. 

 JB:  Lost Ships, your first album with Albanian-Swiss singer Elina Duni is a great album. Talk about how you came to work with Elina.

RL:  I met Elina in 2017 after I was awarded second prize in the Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition at the 2016 Montreux Jazz Festival (adjudicated by John McLaughlin!). Part of the award was a week’s worth of mentoring the following winter in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a star-studded faculty of guest tutors including Marcus Miller, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Trilok Gurtu, and… Elina Duni! 

I got on really well with all of these legendary artists, but it was Elina’s musicality and her manner of embracing her Balkan roots in her music that really spoke to me. We kept in touch afterward and in October 2017 we played our first show together in a duo in Tetovo Jazz Festival, North Macedonia. The rest is history!


 JB: Tell us about your goals in making the new ECM album A Time To Remember with Elina.

RL:  The overarching concept of the entire album can be summed up by the lyrics of the title track. The song was co-written by Elina and myself during the long winter lockdown of early 2021 when we found ourselves “marooned” in Egypt’s Sinai Desert due to the British border being shut at that moment! The lyrics express a feeling of when everything stopped and was totally shut down. We both felt as though life could only be remembered and not lived anymore, like a photograph hanging on a wall. The guitar ostinato in this piece undulates like the gentle waves of the Red Sea, an endless movement that inspires us to “remember”.

Our other co-composed songs on the album are heavily inspired by this time spent in the Sinai Desert, making references to the Red Sea and to the awe-inspiring nature that somehow survives and even thrives in an arid desert climate. In early 2021, we both found solace in the open seas, discovering the incredible marine life of the Red Sea coral coast and learned the true meaning of silence, taking long walks in the rocky desert accompanied only by the persistent whistling of the wind. 

 JB:  What did you appreciate most about your fellow musicians on the new album, flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel and pianist/drummer Fred Thomas?

RL:  I have a huge amount of respect for Fred Thomas and Matthieu Michel, not least because they both have scarily accurate “absolute pitch”! Playing with musicians who can instantaneously hear anything you’re playing with such precision is both awe-inspiring and ever so slightly terrifying.  On a broader level, though, there was a definite willingness to get to the essence of things on this album, to get to the core of the chosen songs, revealing something bare and deeply profound, echoing the nature of the Sinai Desert. As such, Matthieu’s elegiac flugelhorn playing and Fred’s pointillistic piano playing really add a lot of depth and emotion to the songs. 

JB:  Other than they are great songs, talk about your choice to use Charlie Haden’s “First Song,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” on the new album.

RL:  This album somehow feels more nostalgic than its predecessor, incorporating songs like the Albanian ballad “Mallëngjimi” (which literally translates as Nostalgia). The inclusion of timeless jazz standards from the American Songbook like “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Send In The Clowns” reflects the elements of melancholy and reminiscence found in this project.

Charlie Haden had a long and fruitful relationship with ECM Records, and his compositions have an almost Bach-like perfection in their balance of melody and harmony, so including “First Song” felt appropriate here. I have always loved to play his music. 

JB:  Talk about the impact of Albanian folk music on you and your composing with Elina.

RL:  As it happens, when I write songs together with Elina we often try to embrace other sound worlds than Balkan folklore! This may sound unusual, but the reason for this is that in a concert setting, around half of the music we generally perform is traditional Albanian folksong. As a result, when we compose together we like to draw influence from elsewhere, in order to contrast with the distinctive color of Balkan traditional music. For example, we are both inspired by great twentieth-century guitarists and singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and John Martyn.  

Fred Thomas, Elina Duni, Matthieu, Rob Luft Photo Clement Puig

JB:  You play what looks to be a Gibson 335.  Tell us about it, the amp and pedal setup that you use. 

RL:  I use both a Gibson ES-335 and a Gibson L-5. For the vast majority of this particular album, I am in fact using the L-5, as it provides the perfect warm, resonant backdrop for Elina’s vocals. I prefer to use my ES-335 in more electronic, amped-up settings, as it responds better to pedals and effects processing. I think you can hear that in the intro to “First Song”, when I’m using my rack-mounted Roland Space Echo!

Other than this, my core pedal setup generally involves using a Volume Pedal to create chordal swells, as well as a Boss DD-5 Digital Delay pedal running in the reverse delay mode in stereo between two Fender Twin Reverb amps.

JB:  As a young gigging musician, how does the scene in Europe compare with that in the US? What advice would you give young American musicians who want to break into Europe?

RL:  Now that’s a tough question! I’ve only played a handful of shows in the USA so I can’t really speak in detail about the scene there.

However, I have noticed that a huge number of American jazz musicians seem to spend a large amount of their lives touring Europe. I myself certainly play at least 50% of my concerts in mainland Europe, where there are countless summer jazz festivals to perform at. It’s such a healthy scene and the audience is so receptive to all styles of jazz, from Dixieland right through to the avant-garde.

I think for young American musicians it would certainly be worthwhile checking out some of the conservatories in West Europe which have jazz courses on offer at very affordable prices, for example, the Jazz Campus in Basel (Switzerland), the Jazz Institute in Berlin (Germany) or the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen (Denmark). I would of course add my own Alma Mater to that, the Royal Academy of Music in London!

Studying at a jazz school is a fantastic way to meet like-minded musicians and to create your own scene. It seems to have somewhat replaced the jam session culture that the forefathers of jazz music used to attend in the 1940s and 1950s, it almost feels like the modern equivalent of that.

In any case, the best piece of advice for any young musician is surely the title of my favorite John McLaughlin piece – “Follow Your Heart”…


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