Marcus Shelby Orchestra: Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Soul of the Movement, despite the monumental figure it pays homage to, is the least ambitious of bassist-composer Marcus Shelby’s three explorations of African-American history. Where Port Chicago was a tragedy of literary proportion, and Harriet Tubman a grand oratorio, this one is a diorama. Given that diminished scope, it’s a good little record that revisits the black church’s role in the struggle.

Which is to say that Soul of the Movement is dominated by gospel motifs. Four of the tunes are spirituals; another, the anthem “We Shall Overcome,” was based on one. This isn’t a flaw. The opening “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” sung by operatic soprano Jeannine Anderson, is one of the album’s most beautiful pieces and an ideal tone-setter. Two other covers, Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner,” also reflect that tradition with taut, smart arrangements (and, in the latter case, a spot-on Mayfield impression by vocalist Kenny Washington). Shelby’s project also evokes the soul-jazz of the period, especially the rollicking “Trouble on the Bus (Freedom Rides),” which is highlighted by brilliant plunger-muted improvisations from trumpeter Darren Johnston. “Black Cab,” the album’s most memorable tune, sung by a very Cassandra Wilson-sounding Washington, features two extraordinary tenor sax solos from Sheldon Brown and Evan Francis.

Yet despite an obvious theme on Soul of the Movement, there’s little tying it to King personally-his work, yes, but the man himself is conspicuously absent. Instead, it’s a hither-thither civil-rights patchwork. Shelby continues to write and make good music, but he’s usually far better than this at making it cohere.