Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
Reedist David Murray has had many faces in his three-decade career—free improviser, big-band leader, Latin maestro, and African explorer. He reveals yet another one on Sacred Ground: mourner. On this somber but sublime quartet recording, he mostly uses a ’60s modal jazz style to explore the history of African-Americans’ expulsion from dozens of towns and counties in the United States between the Civil War and the Great Depression. (The album was inspired by Marco Williams’ documentary on the subject, Banished, which Murray scored.) Rather than voicing the expected outrage, Murray treats this ethnic cleansing as a long-running—and ongoing—tragedy, and pathos permeates Sacred Ground from start to finish. Sometimes Murray wears it on his sleeve, as on “Banished,” a dirge carried by Murray’s woebegone bass clarinet. Sometimes he hides it: The hard-bop “Family Reunion” is a celebration, but its minor chords and moaning dissonances suggest that grief is still lurking uncomfortably below the surface. The compositions, of course, do a great deal to establish the album’s mood, but the players’ approaches to the music do a great deal more. Murray remains a visceral musician: He doesn’t play his horn so much as make it erupt with emotion. More surprising is pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, debuting with the Black Saint Quartet. (He replaces longtime member John Hicks, who died last year.) Known for exercising the whole keyboard at once, Gilchrist here sticks with midrange chords when comping and works the high end in the solos so that it sounds plaintive, even when he plays fast. Bassist Ray Drummond gently fills harmonic spaces and drummer Andrew Cyrille is so empathetic that he practically plays melody. Their paths cross brilliantly in the elegiac “Believe in Love”: Drummond constructs a tango while Cyrille lays out marching-band rolls and kicks. Then there’s guest-star Cassandra Wilson. Normally a rootsy and soulful chanteuse, on Sacred Ground she’s more subtle even than Drummond, adopting a quiet croon for her two performances, written by poet and novelist Ishmael Reed: the opening title track and the sultry blues closer “Prophet of Doom,” where she inhabits the mythical Greek seer who shares her first name. Claiming ancestors’ left-behind remains, she becomes the album’s conscience, softly explaining, “You took everything from us, but now we’re home/The spirit of our people shouldn’t sleep alone.” It’s a hauntingly beautiful moment, both proud and melancholy, and cutting to the multifaceted humanity at Sacred Ground’s center. Melancholy dominates the record, but Murray couldn’t allow merely one dimension to define it.