Jazz CD Review: Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt” — Homage to Carl Sandburg

Matt Wilson’s album includes both beautifully performed musical settings and readings of Carl Sandburg poems.

Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg, Matt Wilson (Palmetto Records)


By Michael Ullman

Prompted by such projects as bassist Steve Swallow’s collaboration with poet Robert Creeley, and pianist Fred Hersch’s magnificent settings of the verse of Walt Whitman, I recently speculated (or was that joked?) that jazz musicians were proving themselves to be more literate than their critics. Now saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has recorded a tribute to Emily Dickinson (Wild Lines) and drummer Matt Wilson has released Honey and Salt, a session that includes both beautifully performed musical settings and readings of Carl Sandburg poems, the latter mostly by musicians such as Christian McBride, Bill Frisell, and Joe Lovano. (One poem is also read by actor Jack Black, an honorary jazz musician given that he is married to one of the daughters of the great bassist Charlie Haden.) Among the unexpected joys of this session is that one hears musicians — who are not members of Wilson’s band — interpret poetry according to the dictates of their spirits and the spirit of the poem he or she chose — or that chose them. Honey and Salt, among other things, is a salute to the power of the voice.

By the time he died in 1967, few American poets had been more celebrated than Sandburg. President Lyndon Johnson said that Sandburg did not merely represent the country — he was America. Many of us learned his little poem “Fog” (“The fog comes/ on little cat feet”) in elementary school. (In high school, I devoured his then celebrated biography of Abraham Lincoln.) Sandburg’s star has fallen considerably since, at least among academics. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of his style, which presents itself without the ironies and double twists of Robert Frost, his rival during their lifetimes. It might also be his meld of prosaic subject matter and inspirational message. One of his books was entitled — without irony — The People, Yes! Setting himself up as a latter day Whitman, Sandburg celebrated those he called “the people.” A sometime folk musician himself, he deeply identified with the country’s working classes, though he worked at finding the right words rather than in making things: “I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass./ Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?”

Today that message seems quaint but, to my ears, it is not irrelevant. One of Sandburg’s poems set by Matt Wilson is “Choose.” It asks a simple question: “The single clenched fist lifted and ready,/ Or the open asking hand held out and waiting. Choose. For we meet by one or the other.” He wants us to choose the hand held out; elsewhere he writes, comically, about our duty to feed the elephant who comes to our door, not turn him away. His ‘people’ are never particularized or seen as groups — one wonders what he (and his poetry) would make of our clashing ethnic politics. He isn’t interested in individuals, but in asserting the virtue of the spirit of community. He urges us to approach others, and life, with an open hand. Given his virulent equalitarianism, Sandburg likes cutting the self-important down to size, as in his poem “Soup,” in which a famous man is described as looking like anyone else while he or she slurps up a bowl of soup. (I saw a famous man eating soup./ I say he was lifting a fat broth/ Into his mouth with a spoon./ His name was in the newspapers that day)

Matt Wilson. Photo: Jimmy Katz.

Percussionist Matt Wilson. Photo: Jimmy Katz.

Wilson’s interest in Sandburg came from his family. The drummer grew up in Knox County, Illinois, as did the poet. Sandburg’s cousin Charley married Wilson’s great-great Aunt Emma, who is mentioned in the poem “Prairie Barn.”

Given my familiarity with Sandburg’s verse, I hardly expected the robust music Wilson has composed, beginning with his swaggering version of “Soup.” Its backbeat, funky bass line, and rocking guitar solo (by Dawn Thomson) turns the poem into a march. But that’s not all. The chorus, as sung and declaimed by Thomson, is memorably sardonic: the music quiets down and Thomson intones, with an admirable air of condescension: “His name was in the newspapers that day.” This is an interpretation that is also an intelligent commentary on the poem. Irony isn’t all that can be found in Honey and Salt. The music is often ravishing, as in the somber duet between the pure-toned trumpeter Ron Miles and Thomson’s guitar on “As Wave Follows Wave,” a poem that Wilson reserves for himself to deliver: “As wave follows wave, so new men take old men’s places.” At the end of the reading he has other band members join him in repeating the last lines … in waves.

The album boasts a variety of tones as well as virtuosity; its performances range from the sweetly lyrical to the boisterously swinging. Wilson’s take on “Fog” is intimate; he puts Sandburg’s own reading on a tape loop, his drumming serving as an accompaniment. “Choose,” on the other hand, is chanted by the band in a raucous performance that sounds as if it could have been a rousing march in the Spanish Civil War. In a series of elegant compositions, Wilson also brings out the touching side of Sandburg. “Cover me over / in dusk and dust and dreams,” Thomson sings fetchingly, introducing Miles’s quietly lyrical trumpet solo. Wilson also finds plenty of humor in Sandburg, as in the lines read by Jack Black, which urge a nameless kid not to be “too doggone happy.”

The band should be praised to the hilt. Standouts include Jeff Lederer’s bass clarinet and piccolo (on “Choose”) as well as his bright harmonium on the surprisingly folksy version of the poem “Off and Rebuff.” Miles’s trumpet playing is lovely, infused with a tactful lyricism — his introductions to various pieces are haunting. Thomson’s vocals are intelligent and expressive, as on the sentimental waltz “I Sang,” accompanied by Lederer’s calmly expressive clarinet solo. (Bassist Martin Wind is the only non-vocalist in the band.) Wilson’s drumming is as deftly melodic as the contributions of his singers. The album’s verse readings are as effective as its musical performances: Rufus Reid’s deep baritone is as appropriate to “Trafficker” as is Black’s wise-guy reading of “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.”

The CD ends with the optimistic “Daybreak,” which Wilson transforms into a Tex-Mex celebration: “Night is getting ready to go/ and Day whispers, Soon now, soon.” Modern man, Nietzsche advised, needs to learn to be humble enough to pay homage. Sandburg instinctively knew the strength of humility, and that lesson is splendidly reaffirmed on Honey and Salt.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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