When Carl Sandburg died in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson hailed the famed poet as “more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.” Fifty years after Sandburg’s passing, drummer and composer Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt pays tribute to the “poet of the people,” who won three Pulitzer Prizes, wrote the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln, advocated for civil rights and traveled the country collecting traditional folk songs.
Sharing both Sandburg’s Midwestern roots and his gift and passion for communicating lofty art to a broad and diverse audience, Wilson has been a lifelong admirer of the poet’s work and has been setting his words to music for more than 15 years. The long-awaited release of Honey and Salt (out August 25 on Palmetto Records) coincides with the 50th anniversary of Sandburg’s death in July 1967 and looks ahead to January 2018, when the 140th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated.
“Sandburg was a Renaissance man and a poet of the people,” Wilson says. “I feel sometimes that of all the celebrated American poets, he doesn't really get his due. Hopefully we can help his work get more recognition in some small way.”
To recite Sandburg’s poems, Wilson enlisted a stellar list of jazz greats whose spoken voices are as expressive and eloquent as their better-known instrumental voices, including Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano and Rufus Reid, along with actor/comedian/ musician Jack Black – an honorary member of the jazz family through his marriage to Charlie Haden’s daughter Tanya. Wilson sets these recitations in an eclectic variety of settings for the ensemble that he’s formed expressly to pay homage to Sandburg: guitarist/vocalist Dawn Thomson, cornetist Ron Miles, multi-reedist Jeff Lederer, and bassist Martin Wind, along with Wilson’s familiarly jubilant and spirited drumming.
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878; in 1964, Wilson was born one town over, in Knoxville. That proximity meant that the drummer became acquainted with the poet’s name and iconic silhouette almost from birth; there was a junior college nearby named for Sandburg, as well as a shopping mall. At home, the Wilson family read and discussed Sandburg’s poetry and listened to recordings of his readings.
Later, finding himself in the frantic metropolitan surroundings of New York City, Wilson found nostalgic solace in Sandburg’s transporting verses. But he also found, in Sandburg’s free verse, a parallel to his own adventurous musical proclivities. “As you get older you start to appreciate your regional connections a lot more,” Wilson says. “But I was always fascinated because it didn't rhyme. That aligned with my tastes in music at that time, when I was exploring all different kinds of music.”
Sandburg’s influence has emerged sporadically throughout Wilson’s career. His leader debut, As Wave Follows Wave, was named for a Sandburg poem that is reprised here; his 2003 album Humidity included a setting of Sandburg’s “Wall Shadows;” and An Attitude for Gratitude, the 2012 release by Wilson’s Arts and Crafts quartet, features the Sandburg-inspired “Bubbles.” The Honey and Salt project began life in 2002 with the help of a Chamber Music America New Works Grant and has since toured the world while Wilson has continued to delve into Sandburg’s volumes for new additions to the band’s repertoire.
Honey and Salt is loosely divided into three chapters and an epilogue: the first, urban-leaning poems; the second, more rural themes and ideas; the third examining the collision and overlap of the two; and the epilogue serving as a meditative leave-taking. Lee Morgan-esque horn lines over a gut-rumbling blues bassline open “Soup,” Sandburg’s more-timely-than-ever musing about a celebrity caught in the ordinary act of slurping soup from a spoon. Christian McBride’s gregarious baritone intones “Anywhere and Everywhere People,” with a series of horn motifs for the poem’s key repeated words. Wilson himself recites the contemplative “As Wave Follows Wave,” ultimately joined by a host of collaborators, friends and family members. “Night Stuff” unfolds against a slow, twilit landscape, while John Scofield recites “We Must Be Polite” in a hilarious deadpan against Wilson’s New Orleans shuffle. Sandburg’s own voice can be heard in duet with Wilson’s drums on his most revered poem, “Fog.” Chapter one closes with the raucous march of “Choose.”
Lederer reads “Prairie Barn” (which references a barn owned by a relative by marriage of Wilson’s) against Thomson’s American-tinged guitar and clattering wind chimes to open chapter two. “Offering and Rebuff” becomes a country love song, while “Stars, Songs, Faces” takes on an Ornette-inspired harmolodic tone. “Bringers” closes the chapter with a taste of down-home gospel. Chapter three opens with Black reading “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz” in a cantankerous rasp while Lederer and Wilson duet – a happy accident occasioned by a power outage at the studio. Bill Frisell’s soft-spoken voice on “Paper 1” contrasts with Joe Lovano’s hep-cat enthusiasm on its companion piece. The two are separated by Rufus Reid’s throaty purr on Wilson’s Beat-era throwback take on “Trafficker,” and the chapter ends with the lyrical “I Sang.”
Bley reads “To Know Silence Perfectly,” for which Wilson made silence the vehicle for improvisation; in an approach that John Cage would have appreciated, the tune’s theme is the same every time, while the length of silences vary based on the performers’ whims. Finally, “Daybreak” ends the album on a celebratory note.
As always, Wilson revels in a wide variety of moods and styles throughout Honey and Salt, which takes its name from a 1963 collection of Sandburg’s poetry. The title captures the delectable combination of sweetness and spice that characterizes the poet’s – and Wilson’s – work. “That’s my favorite volume of his poetry and I love the title,” Wilson says. “It has some collision, some rub. Music isn’t all flowers and candy; it has to have some edge to it.”