‘Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg’ Review
Drummer and composer Matt Wilson’s new album does more than wed words to music—it points toward a new kind of jazz recording.
Poetry and jazz seem like natural allies. The elegant brevity of the words would appear to be a perfect match for the abstract tones of the instrumentation; after all, the Great American Songbook is full of poetic lyrics that are rendered best by jazz musicians. Yet, in practice, projects that blend poetry and jazz have been a mixed bag. All too often the cadences of the words don’t mesh well with the accompaniment, resulting in a combination that is less than the sum of its parts.
But not “Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg ” (Palmetto), the new recording from drummer and composer Matt Wilson. Not only does it succeed in wedding words to music, but it may point toward a new kind of jazz recording.
Mr. Wilson, who is 52, is unusually well suited for this project. He grew up in Knoxville, Ill., near Sandburg’s native Galesburg, and verses by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and biographer have been part of the drummer’s cultural diet from an early age. After Mr. Wilson moved to New York in the late ’80s, he found in Sandburg’s work both the spirit of home and, in the poet’s free verse, inspiration for exploring all varieties of music. Mr. Wilson’s debut recording as a leader, “As Wave Follows Wave” (Palmetto, 1996), is named for a Sandburg poem, and his ensemble also performs the great poet’s “Wall Shadows” on his 2003 release, “Humidity” (Palmetto).
The drummer began his Sandburg project in 2002 after getting a grant from Chamber Music America, and he’s divided the new recording into three sections—poems with urban settings, those with rural themes, and those that mix the two—plus an epilogue.
In the first section, the music is big and catchy. A rambunctious and soulful beat drives “Soup,” while “Anywhere and Everywhere People” is funky and puckish. Some of the words are sung by guitarist Dawn Thomson, but on “People” Sandburg’s verses are recited by bassist, radio host, festival director and renowned jazz personality Christian McBride, who adds clever inflections to the prose.
The great poet’s words are recited by a host of well-known figures in the jazz community, including Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and John Scofield ; in addition, actor Jack Black recites “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.” A recording of Sandburg himself is featured on “Fog” accompanied only by Mr. Wilson’s drums. The percussion initially surrounds the recitation, but Mr. Wilson’s percussive phrases become tighter and tighter until, in the last verse, the drums accent each word of the poem. It’s emblematic of how well the music fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19
fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19 and 20 and at various venues in California, New England and Seattle this autumn.
Mr. Wilson has built a formidable reputation as one of jazz’s leading drummers. He plays with an effusive swing reminiscent of jazz great Art Blakey. Besides the Carl Sandburg Project, Mr. Wilson leads a quartet under his name, Arts and Crafts and Christmas Tree-O.
Although Mr. Wilson’s music spans a wide range of territory, it never feels as if it’s solely for jazz geeks, and that’s an important strength of the new disc. Jazz musicians are creating an extraordinary amount of great music these days, but most of it is buried inside the genre’s niche. Recordings like “Honey and Salt”—and “Find the Common, Shine a Light” by Ryan Keberle and Catharsis, which dealt with protest songs, and “Hudson” by the all-star quartet of Mr. Scofield, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist John Medeski, which focused on Woodstock-era rock—point toward a broader audience without musical compromise. These recordings are not solely for specialists; their music builds a bridge.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.