No one can accuse Dave Douglas of pandering to mainstream interests. Among his primary inspirations for Secular Psalms is the Ghent Altarpiece (a.k.a. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), a polyptych created by the Belgian brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Completed in 1432, the work is considered a masterpiece of early European Renaissance art; the Handelsbeurs concert hall in Ghent commissioned the 10-piece tribute from Douglas to commemorate its 600th anniversary.
You don’t need to know any of that, however, to enjoy what the trumpeter/composer has created, with help from a quintet featuring American cellist Tomeka Reid and three European musicians. Secular Psalms impresses both as a continuously unfolding suite and as a collection of markedly diverse songs revealing a wide range of textures and sensations, from lulling and pastoral to tense and edgy. Lest you think that it might, given its intent, lean toward the precious, consider that the second track here, “Mercy,” takes its cues not from medieval Europe at all but rather from Motown’s own Marvin Gaye. It’s best to leave preconceptions behind and just take it all in.
Douglas—whose other accompanists include pianist/organist Marta Warelis, guitarist Frederik Leroux, tubist/vocalist Berlinde Deman, and drummer Lander Gyselinck—began assembling what would become Secular Psalms in 2018, then used the COVID lockdowns to retool and fine-tune. “Arrival,” the opening track, advances tentatively, Douglas’ trumpet laying out sketches that are quickly enough challenged by the others. As it progresses, sections such as “Instrumental Angels” and “Righteous Judges” take off to parts unanticipated and demanding of closer attention. Secular Psalms isn’t a casual listen; it’s adventurous and continually surprising music whose relationship to its stated subject is open-ended enough for any listener to make, or reject, connections at will.
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