On his first album as a leader, 1996’s As Wave Follows Wave, Matt Wilson and his collaborators Dewey Redman (saxophone) and Cecil McBee (bass) chant poet Carl Sandburg’s titular ode to evanescence and renewal. At the time, it seemed like a hat-tip to a fellow Illinoisan by a brilliant young drummer-composer who brought a singular curiosity to free-jazz situations. But with his latest release, Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto), Wilson has clearly found a soul mate in the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who died in 1967 at age 89.
Growing up on the same Knox County prairielands that provided Sandburg with so much of his inspiration, Wilson had a closer connection to the poet than most members of his generation. More than their shared Scandinavian heritage, Wilson knew that he was distantly related to Sandburg (his great-great aunt married Sandburg’s first cousin): “a family connection, by marriage, that makes [the project] a little more personal,” says Wilson, 53. “But I think I got into Carl Sandburg more when I did this term paper in college and discovered he liked jazz, which made a connection to my world. Also, when you leave home you often get a new sense of pride in your roots. I started revisiting him when I moved to Brooklyn. I wrote ‘Wave Follows Wave’ after I bought a book of Sandburg’s poetry on 7th Street in Brooklyn.”
You could view Honey and Salt as one of a recent spate of ambitious releases featuring jazz settings for poetry. But really it’s a quintessential Wilson production, with the same loose and limber, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sensibility that has energized many of his previous albums. Divided into three chapters with a gorgeous epilogue, the album is built on the conversational rhythm tandem of Wilson and Martin Wind (on acoustic bass guitar), and the Mutt-and-Jeff matchup of Ron Miles’ elegant, cool cornet and Jeff Lederer’s earthy bass clarinet, slashing alto sax, fervid tenor sax and brightly piping clarinet.
The revelatory wildcard is guitarist and vocalist Dawn Thompson, whose sweet, guileless delivery of the opening piece, the crunching blues “Soup,” introduces the tensions that animate the project. The verse describes a famous man’s quotidian lunch with almost surreal repetitive detail, a portrait of “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork,” to quote Sandburg’s misanthropic anti-thesis, William S. Burroughs. Along with Thompson’s vocals, the album includes several instrumental tracks and pieces recited by musicians Wilson recruited. His casting choices, including Carla Bley on the unaccompanied concluding benediction, “To Know Silence Perfectly,” repeatedly hit pay dirt.
Except for Lederer’s deliberate recitation of “Prairie Barn,” Wilson says the readings followed the recording of the music. The results are better than anything that could have been planned, like Wilson’s antic setting for the playfully absurdist verse “We Must Be Polite,” delivered with poker-faced aplomb by John Scofield. “When I sent it to John it came back in a completely different way than we expected, like he was reading to his grandchildren. It ended up being more powerful than if it was over the top. I just said, ‘Read them the way you think.’”
In many ways, Honey and Salt is a work in progress. For concerts Wilson has been recruiting musicians, friends and even music critics to recite Carl Sandburg’s poems with the band; it’s yet another way Wilson has found to invite people into his musical world. His affinity for Sandburg as an artist echoes his ongoing campaign to coax jazz musicians into seeking new ways to connect with audiences.
Sandburg belonged to an age when writers of all stripes enjoyed visibility and influence far beyond anything possible in today’s image-dominated popular culture, and the remarkably prolific scribe took his role as a man of letters seriously. He was the first poet to address Congress, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln is still praised for its vivid prose (if not its historical grounding). But he thrived in the age of mass electronic media too. “[He was] a semi-regular fixture on television back in the day, appearing on What’s My Line? and on this Gene Kelly special where he wrote a poem for Kelly that Nelson Riddle set to music,” Wilson says. “Marilyn Monroe loved him!”
In much the same way that Wilson’s music feels both timeless and utterly contemporary, Sandburg’s plainspoken verse captures universal truths that fit today’s headlines with dismaying accuracy. Christian McBride’s knowing recitation of “Anywhere and Everywhere People” unspools like an X-ray of our reality-television age (“There are people so eager to be seen/They nearly always manage to be seen”). Indeed, it’s striking and sometimes depressing just how prescient Sandburg could be. With its martial, gung-ho music, Wilson’s most direct setting is for “Choose,” a short verse from Chicago Poems, published in 1916 while a generation of European men lost their lives in the trenches of World War I.
THE SINGLE clenched fist lifted
Or the open asking hand held out
For we meet by one or the other.