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Some of us have an uneasy relationship with sacred music. The appeal is undeniable; if you seek conviction in your art, religious/spiritual/whatever music (or books, paintings, film, etc.) can be a gateway to a deep experience, even if you’re not a believer yourself. At the same time, you might wonder if that lack of belief means you’re not fully grokking the work, or even that contemplating the art without buying into the inspiration behind it is being disrespectful to those who do. So much spiritual music is dedicated to conveying, literally, divine inspiration. If the divine doesn’t inspire you, does that mean you’re really understanding what you’re hearing?
Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas is, apparently, not a believer. It’s right there in the name of his latest album: Secular Psalms. Commissioned by the City of Gent and the Handelsbeurs Theater to pay tribute to Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, the song cycle draws deeply from an overtly spiritual library, including the Latin Mass, the poetry of Christine de Pisan and, yes, one of the Psalms. Outside of cellist Tomeka Reid, Douglas works with musicians with whom he hasn’t a history, giving the tunes he’s written here a different dimension than what’s normally found on his records. Somewhere between classical structure, jazz improvisation and religious solemnity lies Secular Psalms.
Take Douglas’ recasting of “Agnus Dei.” The original melody is likely one of the most recognized in the world; you’d know it even if you think you don’t know it. Douglas, however, chooses to keep only some of the words from the original piece, writing new music that’s some of the loosest on the album. Playing simple trumpet melodies over a string-driven arrangement, the composer lets guitarist Frederik Leroux have the solo spotlight, and invites tubist Berlinde Deman to frost the arrangement with ethereal vocalizing. De Pisan provides the libretto for “If I’m in Church More Often Now,” with Deman using her pretty singing to gently highlight the undertone of defiance in a track that comes close to pop catchiness. For the lovely “Mercy,” Douglas interpolates the Latin Mass, Psalm 59 and some words borrowed from Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” with some of his own thoughts, letting Deman interpret and drummer Lander Gyselinck groove along to one of the collection’s most accessible melodies.
Douglas’ jazz aesthetic really asserts itself on the pure instrumentals. The appropriately titled “Instrumental Angels” lets Gyselinck and Reid really cut loose, with the latter particularly putting her instrument through its paces. A lighter, almost whimsical tone permeates “Righteous Judges,” with samples of horses and birds poking pinholes in the tapestry woven by Douglas and the band. The boss shines brightest, however, on “Hermits and Pilgrims,” his horn carrying the angular melody home.
Douglas pens the lyrics for closing number “Edge of Night” solo, having Deman comment “Making this music will help us to heal/Even as the world continues to reel.” And there lies the not-so-secret message behind the recording: things will get better if you have faith. It may or may not be faith in the divine, but Douglas clearly believes in the power of prayer, and Secular Psalms goes so far as to answer his own invocation for a better world.
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