Trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas’ Secular Psalms is a suite commissioned to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, completed around 1432. Begun in 2018, Douglas’ creation was soon affected by the COVID-19 lockdown, necessitating online recordings including some collective improvising with Douglas, cellist Tomeka Reid and six young European musicians. It’s a multi-faceted work, with composed, improvised and quoted materials, even considering the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy in which the van Eycks worked; other artists present included the composer Guillaume Dufay and the poet Christine de Pisan, and Douglas has gone so far as to echo their works in the suite. Those 15th-century artists aren’t the limits of Douglas’ reach. In one brief lyric, he patches together Marvin Gaye’s phrase “Mercy, Mercy, Me” (twice), “Kyrie Eleison” and Psalm 59’s “but I will sing” with nine words of his own.
Leaving aside questions of taste and appropriateness, it’s an ambitious, insistently egalitarian work, with Douglas creating some expressive textures that mix chamber music sonorities with other instrumental voices. The merger includes the Agnus Dei with Douglas’ central, dark-toned trumpet variously counterposed to ruggedly rhythmic cello, percussively dissonant piano and jarring, fuzz-toned electric guitar. The collective improvisation of Instrumental Angels is accomplished, and there are moments of real synergy created under difficult conditions.
After repeated listening, the work’s structure and contours may still feel unfocused, but one can salute an artist working under challenging circumstances to connect such diverse impulses. It may be the muffled, mutating cries and penetrating lyricism of Douglas’ trumpet that reverberate longest.