Album reviews

Dave Douglas: ‘Secular Psalms’

Dave Douglas: Secular Psalms 

(Greenleaf CD Gre-CD-1090. Album review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

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This album consists of a suite to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the beginnings of the work on the Ghent Altarpiece designed and painted by Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck. The altarpiece has also been in the public eye because several years of a painstaking and full restoration were completed in 2020. 

The commission of Secular Psalms, which Douglas has described as “an ode to Ghent and its masterpiece, about pure beauty and our sometimes tough existence”, stems from conversations which Dave Douglas had with Wim Wabbes, the artistic director at the concert hall, an extremely creative programmer with a broad knowledge of music and current President of the Europe Jazz Network. Douglas tells the story in more detail on the album’s Bandcamp page – link below.

The idea for the commission began in July 2018, but the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 meant that it was not possible to bring the musicians together in one studio, and as a result the music came about through recordings in the hometowns of the various players made between May 2020 and August 2021.  Vocalist Berlinde Deman was recorded in Ghent, cellist Tomeka Reid was recorded in Chicago, pianist and organist Marta Warelis was recorded in Amsterdam. Guitarist Frederik Leroux and drummer Lander Gyselinck are both natives of Ghent, so they were presumably recorded somewhere in Belgium.  Dave Douglas, on trumpet and voice, was recorded in the USA. When Douglas was asked by a musician quite why he was putting so much time into this work, he responded with another question: “How much time do you think Van Eyck put into his work?”

The compositions create a very successful mix of jazz and classical music which seems entirely appropriate for the celebration of the polyptych created for display in the Ghent Cathedral.  Douglas has drawn on the music and literature of the period when the altarpiece was painted, notably the music of Guillaume DuFay, the writing of Christine de Pisan, and the text of the Latin Mass. 

There are ten tracks.  Arrival presents a beautiful instrumental opening for the set led by Douglas’ rich tone on the trumpet followed towards the end of the track by Reid whose rich tone and elegant improvisations are entirely fitting for the classical and jazz mix of the music, and for the spiritual context  of the work. 

Mercy introduces vocals by Berlinde Deman with words from Psalm 59, the Latin Mass, Marvin Gaye and Douglas himself.  The vocals have a haunting and atmospheric sound that contrasts neatly with Douglas’ bright sound on the trumpet.  We Believe and Agnus Dei also have vocals with texts from the Latin Mass with a vocal sound that is difficult to describe; they are a kind of chant with a pulse, but also have an air of mystery. On Agnus Dei Leroux’s guitar enters after contributions from Warelis on piano and Reid on cello to add a more contemporary, up-tempo mood to the piece.

Instrumental Angels is an interactive instrumental track which works extremely well given that the musicians were recording in different studios; it has an attractively bouncy melody and group improvisation led by Douglas on the trumpet.  Hermits and Pilgrims features Warelis on the pump organ as well as another notable contribution from Reid on cello.  Righteous Judges brings a free-er improvisatory approach with a touch of electronics. 

The set is rounded off by Edge of Night with words by Douglas; it initially refers back to the opening track Arrival with sombre sounds on the pump organ before the vocals and the more intense sounds of the guitar enter.

This is a major and important work in which Douglas has integrated very successfully various sounds and textures from the haunting vocals, the rich and elegant sounds of the trumpet, cello and pump organ to the more dramatic contemporary sounds of the guitar to create a very fitting tribute to an important work of art.

The live version of the project will be premiered at the Handelsbeurs in Ghent on 4 November this year.  It will be played in Bruges on 5 November, and in Berlin on a date to be confirmed.

Dave Douglas plays the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in duo with drummer Joey Baron on Saturday 30th April 

Secular Psalms is ‘a production of Handelsbeurs in coproduction with Jazz Brugge, November Music and Jazzfest Berlin with the support of The City of Ghent and Baloise Insurance.

LINK: Secular Psalms on Bandcamp

Categories: Album reviews

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