Jan van Eyck, Guillaume Dufay, Philip the Good of Burgundy, Christine de Pisan, Psalm 59, and Marvin Gaye – these are the sources that trumpeter Dave Douglas has somehow synthesized into his release Secular Psalms, a project that began taking shape in mid-2018. Handelsbeurs artistic director Wim Wabbes commissioned Douglas to compose new work to celebrate the 600th anniversary of van Eyck’s painting The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also widely known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Restoration of the painting began in 2012, peeling back layers that someone had slathered on over a hundred years after its completion, giving the piece what Douglas referred to as “an almost entirely new contemporary vision of the piece”.
Imagine applying the word “contemporary” to something painted in the 15th century. It’s only fitting that brand new music should be composed to commemorate a fresh look at an old painting. Douglas recruited cellist Tomeka Reid, pianist/organist Marta Warelis, guitarist Frederik Leroux, tubist/vocalist Berlinde Deman, and drummer Lander Gyselinck for his ensemble, only to have work on Secular Psalms temporarily cease due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Douglas used the downtime to rewrite some of the passages, treating Secular Psalms as an organic work in progress instead of a finished project that just needed recording.
One example of a piece that got fleshed out amid the uncertainty is “Mercy”. The only lyrics are “Mercy mercy me, kyrie, eléison / Mercy mercy me, but I will sing of the bright sun rising each brand new day.” That may be only 21 words, but they come from four different sources, including the Latin Mass. “Mercy” probably would have turned out differently had Douglas not had extra time on his hands to ponder the nature of “songs of praise for all of us”, his interpretation of the album’s title.
With a few van Eyck’s angels adorning the inside of the CD’s digipak, Secular Psalms gives off an aroma of an arcane inspiration crossed with modern flavors, and the sound matches perfectly. When Leroux’s electric guitar bends into a distorted moan on the opening track “Arrival”, he’s surrounded by a bed of warm sounds that, while not precisely from the 15th century, capture some cacophonous spirit lurking beneath the canvas.
For “We Believe”, Reid’s cello and Warelis’ pump organ blend seamlessly, clearing the way for Leroux’s lute. The text comes from the Credo of the Latin Mass, but the sighing chord progression at play sounds more like one of John Zorn‘s mystical compositions for harp and guitar than anything out of an ancient chapel. For having the most focused bit of text, “Agnus Dei” is musically all over the place with its shifting tempos, temporary sense of funk, and scorching lead guitar. “Agnus Dei. Dona nobis pacem” Deman intones gently, as if it were all just another day at the office.
The further Secular Psalms drifts along, the more impressionistic it grows. Tempos ebb and flow as the sound gathers around a nebulous core, sending hoof beats and glittering electronics afloat in “Righteous Judges”, while “Ah Moon” sews a lonely urban jazz ballad to harmonically challenging chamber music. The final track, “Edge of Night”, is anchored by something more tangible, sending the listener off with a delightfully puzzling impression of music that is tender yet somehow bordering on noisy.
In a recording career stretching almost 30 years, it’s just another reminder that Douglas can still cobble together whatever elements he wants and have it all come out sounding artful. If Secular Psalms doesn’t end up standing out as one of his best recordings, Douglas fans can rest assured that it will stand out as one of his most accomplished. There is a great deal to unpack here between conception, composition, and distance recording, and you’re all the richer for it.