Thursday, September 7, 2017

Matt Wilson's "Honey and Salt" : Music to the Poetry of Carl Sandburg

Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt

On his latest release Honey and Salt, the ebullient drummer Matt Wilson has created a suite of music that invigorates the bare, stoic verse of one of America’s great poets, Carl Sandburg. Wilson spells out his connections to this scribe in the liner notes; both are Mid-Westerners, both are of Swedish descent and Wilson was born just one town over from Sandburg’s birthplace of Galesburg, Illinois.  Besides the geographic ties, the eclectic drummer had a distant familial relationship with the poet that goes back three generations. Wilson has been fascinated by the poet’s work since his college days when he did a term paper on Sandburg and surprisingly discovered the man’s interest in jazz music.

But merging two artforms is always a tricky proposition. While jazz and poetry have always shared common ground, mixing the two can be problematic. Those wanting to hear the unvarnished words of the poet might be off-put by the intrusion of a musician’s interpretation; those more interested in the musician’s vision may miss the message within the poem.

Wilson has managed to walk the tightrope here. With Honey and Salt  he has created a masterful suite of music that both honors the verity within the poetry of Sandburg and at the same time enriches the experience of hearing the verse by pairing it with his wonderfully complimentary music.  

The Cd starts with Sandburg’s tome about a man eating a bowl of soup. The sixty-three-word poem, “Soup,” opens with a slow tempo blues beat. The unassuming voice of guitarist Dawn Thomson sings or speaks the poet’s words while tracing Wilson’s undulating melody-line. Wilson and bassist Martin Wind create an easy shuffle, with Wilson occasionally injecting a hint of frivolity into his playing, by adding  some kick-boom-bang accents at key points. Cornetist Ron Miles and multi-reed player Jeff Lederer weave a serpentine line in unison throughout, as Thomson plays some ragged guitar lines over the top.

As usual, Wilson’s energetic playing is the driving force behind the whole album. The man always exudes a sense of vibrancy and joy in every beat of his drum and every splash of his cymbal. He brings a range of emotions to all eighteen of the poems, each made musical here. The poems are all culled from “The Complete Works of Carl Sandburg” published in 1970, and the trap master counts two signed first edition copies of the book as prized possessions.

Wilson enlisted a coterie of jazzers to participate in this project, interestingly not as musicians, but as readers. Bassist Christian McBride bellows a reading of Sandburg’s “Anywhere and Everywhere People.”

I especially enjoyed Wilson’s sensuous music on “Night Stuff” which featured the deep-toned bass clarinet of Lederer and the Grace Slick-sounding voice of Thomson.

Guitarist John Scofield gives a coy reading to the playful “We Must Be Polite” which Wilson propels with a New Orleans’-style shuffle and features a honking, squeaking solo by the versatile Lederer. 

“Prairie Barn” is read by Lederer, which Wilson treats like the piece of Americana it is, with its solitary, softly played guitar lines strummed over the drummer’s percussive wind chime effect.

The comedic actor Jack Black, an honorary jazzer by virtue of his marriage to the late bassist Charlie Haden’s daughter, reads on “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz,. The locked interplay between the soprano saxophone of Lederer and Wilson’s multi-timbered traps and toms are an album highlight.

“Paper II” is the poem Wilson treats in the most straight-ahead jazz manner. Guitarist Bill Frisell, somewhat tentatively without his gutisr in hand, reads the verse over Thomson’s comping guitar chords. Lederer and Miles offer a distinctively Blue Note-era sounding frontline treatment on this gritty blues. Wind’s walking bass line is like a bulkhead of stability and Lederer pours it on in an impressive display of raw tenor inventiveness.

The raspy baritone of bassist Rufus Reid is heard reading the lines of Sandburg’s “Trafficker,” a grim vision of a rather desperately unsuccessful woman of the night. Wilson uses his wispy brushes as Wind walks and a muted Miles sets the seamy night scene.

The short poem “Paper I” features the voice of saxophonist Joe Lovano, once again over the comping guitar chords of Thomson. Lovano’s  cool cadence and slick inflections lend a perfect hipster vibe to the verse “Are you a writer or a wrapper?”  One could almost substitute the word “rapper” for the poem’s “wrapper” and for modern day listeners there would be a whole new meaning.

Besides Wilson’s own reading of “As Wave Follows Wave,” the last reader is the composer Carla Bley, enlisted to read “To Know Silence Perfectly.” As a composer, Bley knows the effectiveness that silence-the space between the notes- can play in creating an effective musical statement. Wilson chooses his sparse sounds judiciously; Lederer on what sounds like a bass clarinet, Miles' nuanced open cornet, Thomson’s strummed guitar and Wind’s acoustic bass notes in an almost chamber-like arrangement. A perfectly complimentary musical message that coincide with the poet’s prescient words."To know silence perfectly is to know music."

The album ends with the joyous “Daybreak.” In Wilson’s typically upbeat manner, the drummer plays another New Orleans’ inspired shuffle, this one a Jambalaya of intertwining clarinet and cornet lines dancing to the infectious rhythm of a New Orleans march, as Thompson and backing vocals dance off into dawn.

Wilson’s lifelong admiration for the poet Carl Sandburg has now been codified with Honey And Salt, a genuine musical expression of appreciation. Carl Sandburg is an American treasure. With Honey and Salt Wilson has created a great new way for us to re-discover the poetry of this master of American verse. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Ralph. I've not heard the recording yet, but you certainly made me want to. All the best. :)