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David Murray/Black Saint Quartet featuring Cassandra Wilson: Sacred Ground

As the title would indicate, this is a spirit-infused outing; the agenda, as set forth by co-songwriter Ishmael Reed’s lyrics on both the title tune and “Prophet of Doom,” is expressly political. The stylistic range spans from ethereal meditation through jaunty, Spanish-tinged swing to freedom-bound ecstasy.

Murray blazes no new trails, but he sounds inspired throughout. His tone, sinewy yet liquid, flirts occasionally with syrup, and he sometimes over-relies on extended shrieks and other free-jazz clichés. But he redeems himself with his well-tempered harmonic imagination and unerring storyteller’s skills. On straightahead fare like “Pierce City” and “Transitions,” he summons a savory array of tonal textures, and his quicksilver runs are as precisely conceived as they are technically audacious. Pianist Lafayette Gilchrist alternates between stabbing percussiveness and richly colored impressionism, which he lightens with impish shake-and-bake bobs and flurries, trading off-time figures between left and right hands while maintaining complex contrapuntal patterns. Andre Cyrille’s drumwork prods rather than kicks, and his solo work is tasteful-the reign of the macho tub-thumpers has mercifully come to an end. Ray Drummond remains flawlessly in the groove even as he pokes it into challenging new contours, and his arco lines recall “Nature Boy”-era Jimmy Garrison.

“Banished” is a brooding aural mediation on bondage and freedom. “Family Reunion,” in contrast, offers a musical portrait of a joyously chaotic occasion: Squalling babies, sassy-mouthed youngsters, and elders who speak and sing in measured, world-weary voices are all summoned through the variegated tones and textures of Murray’s tenor. Gilchrist’s piano lines pogo and skitter (and occasionally collide), like children frolicking and scurrying underfoot.

Wilson appears on the opening title tune and the closing “The Prophet of Doom,” channeling more emotional depth from understatement than a lesser singer could from screaming and preaching. In “Prophet” she assumes the persona of her mythic namesake, delivering Reed’s ebonics-tinged versions of the old tales like a saucy sista girl-talking in a beauty salon.

The presence of ancestral spirits-dancing and celebrating, but delivering stern warnings as well-is palpable here. We’d do well to heed their message.

Originally Published