David Murray has been collaborating in one way or another with poet, novelist, and cultural critic Ishmael Reed (co-founder of the Before Columbus Foundation) since 1980. They have worked on Reed's three Conjure recordings as well as his For All We Know CD. Sacred Ground is a Murray date, recorded for his now longtime label Justin Time, performed with his brilliant Black Saint Quartet that includes drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Ray Drummond, and pianist Lafayette Gilchist (who replaced the late John Hicks). Murray had scored the soundtrack for Marco Williams' brilliant film Banished, about the dozen or so American counties in the South and Midwest that expelled -- often violently -- thousands of blacks between Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Murray's appetite for investigation (which has always been enormous anyway) was whetted and he continued his own independent thinking and research. He asked Reed to participate in the project by writing poems for Cassandra Wilson to sing. Those two songs bookend this set. Murray's tune "Banished" is here, as is music that he extrapolated upon apart from the film. Murray is a more than prolific artist, having recorded upwards of 100 albums in his career thus far, and has been part of at least another 150. Saying that Sacred Ground is one of his most satisfying and deeply expressive offerings is risky, but it's also true. For starters, there's the band. The Black Saint Quartet have been together long enough to understand one another intimately. As a composer, Murray writes to the strengths of each player and creates bridges for members to speak to one another both inside and outside his compositions. Then there's Wilson, who sings with such understated yet unmistakable authority here. Her restraint and trademark phrasing is a tribute to her discipline, to allow words to speak for themselves and to bring out only their hidden meanings. Yet here, on the title track, it is she who gets stretched, too. Reed's words carry within them both anger and resignation, journalistic acumen, and deep cultural commentary, without once falling into the obvious.
Murray's opening blues phraseology extends into balladry almost right off, giving a long chorus before Wilson enters: "We come back to claim/Our deepest legacy/ We've come back to claim, our very/To you, they're just a box full of bones/But to us, they're our loved ones/Who shouldn't be left alone/You took everything from us, but now we're home/The spirit of our people/Shouldn't sleep alone/Banished from your towns, filled with hate/You thought you destroyed us, and sealed our fate/We survived...." The one thing absent in Reed's words is disbelief. When Wilson finishes her verse and Murray leads the group into modal dissonance -- underscored by the arco playing of Drummond and the ostinati of Gilchrist, Wilson moans in both assent and in pain before the tune changes tempo and key, moving toward something nearly Afro-Cuban. Stunning. The tune is nearly nine minutes long and goes by in a flash. The set is moving, from the post-bop extensions of "Transitions" to the midtempo ballad cum improvisational "Pierce City" to the glorious title tune to "Banished," on which Murray pulls out his bass clarinet and gets inside the entire history of the music as if to express that, even with the passage of time, certain topics remain forbidden history in America. The glorious long ballad "Believe in Love" is textured in rhumba and tarantella overtones. "Family Reunion" is pure soul-jazz for the 21st century. It swings, pops, jumps, and then extends the notion to the breaking point into new terrain. The shuffling beat is grist for the mill as Murray's solo quotes everyone from W.C. Handy to Stevie Wonder in his solo.
The set closes on Wilson's other number, "The Prophet of Doom," which begins its nearly 11-and-a-half-minute run as a blues over a chorus or two before Wilson begins: "My name is Cassandra/daughter of Hecuba/Priestess of Athena/Student of Apollo/Sister of Paris/They call me 'prophet of doom'...." Reed wrote the poem by looking into Greek mythology for parallels between the singer and the goddess she is named for. He found a few, though those are not found in the opening verse. The band continues its blues stroll as Wilson digs in with streetwise humor and sass: "Apollo took me to school/But I taught him a thing or two/Never think that because you 're a god/That every girl'll put out for you/He must have thought I was an easy nymph/Someone he could seduce and pimp." The band takes delight in the loose form, with Cyrille playing to accent the backbeats and Gilchrist filling the lines with big extrapolated chords, offering an extended harmonic palette for a simple blues. Murray doesn't reenter the tune until nearly halfway through and begins his slippery yet knotty solo. He builds on those poignant accents of Gilchrist's and digs deep into the bass walk by Drummond, who does some filling of his own with chords and extra-note runs. The tempo changes and twists and turns and the band swings the blues hard before Wilson returns, opening room for a piano solo and then again to take it out. Sacred Ground is a journey in time, space, and sound, one rooted in all the lineages, and yet it is a further benchmark of Murray's own decidedly marked place within it, even as it points both forward and back -- just like Reed's writing and Wilson's singing.