It’s National Poetry Day, and since I have a weakness for the much abused hybrid known as jazz and poetry that goes back to schooldays, this is a good excuse — if one were needed — to write about Matt Wilson’s new album, Honey and Salt, in which he sets the words of the poet Carl Sandburg to music.
Some people don’t like the star system of reviewing, but it was while reading the August edition of Down Beat in Ray’s Jazz Shop the other day that a five-star lead review sent me across the floor to search out a copy of Honey and Salt. It turned out to be a good tip.
Wilson, a fine drummer familiar in many contexts, whom I last heard with Liberation Music Orchestra, recruited an excellent band for this project: Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds and harmonium), Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar), and Dawn Thompson, who plays guitar and sings on a handful of the 18 selections, plus an interesting group of readers better known as instrumentalists: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley. Oh, and the actor Jack Black.
Sandburg (1878-1967) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, and a third for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was from Knox County, Illinois, as is Wilson. Sandburg’s first cousin was married to Wilson’s great-great-aunt. While researching an essay on the poet during his college days, Wilson discovered Sandburg’s interest in jazz.
The poems are dry, pithy, witty and humane, some of them with a powerful resonance in the new century. Here’s one called “Choose”: “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.” And here’s one of his best known, called “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over city and harbor / on silent haunches / and then moves on.” Wilson includes Sandburg’s own recording of “Fog”, accompanying the poet’s gentle voice with mallets on tom-toms.
The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, and the playing of the individuals — particularly the always brilliant Miles — is outstanding. The readers are all terrific, and to Bley falls the privilege of delivering, without accompaniment, the marvellous “To Know Silence Perfectly”: “There is a music for lonely hearts nearly always. / If the music dies down there is a silence / Almost the same as the movement of music. / To know silence perfectly is to know music.” On this evidence, their acute awareness of tone and cadence and expression makes jazz musicians great readers of poetry.
There’s an intriguing-sounding programme on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 1st October with Michael Rosen on Gerard Manley Hopkins called “The First Jazz Poet”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b096gqw5
“Like many other students of English Literature, Michael was stunned by Hopkins’ experimental breaking and re-making of the English language and heard similarities with the jazz of musicians like Miles Davies (sic) in these new rhythms. How was it that Hopkins could reject the long established pattern of poetry, with its metrical feet, and instead use the principal of the beat of music? How could he have been so inventive with poetry, fifty years ahead of his time, before 20th Century Modernist poets discovered how they could take these risks too? It’s hard to hear Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood without hearing the presence of Hopkins behind it. For Seamus Heaney, Hopkins was “the main man”!”
Well, what a fantastic project. And just an extract from Sandburg’s Jazz Fantasia, so as not to offend against copyright, for any readers who don’t know it.
“Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome treetops,
moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a
racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang!
you jazzmen, bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns,
tin cans — make two people fight on the top of a stairway
and scratch each other’s eyes in a clinch tumbling down
Sandburg is so due for a revival! He’s under-studied in academia from what I can tell, more from what learned people think his poetry was like that what it actually is. Somehow he’s tagged as simple Americana, dumped in with Norman Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton, when his vision of America is actually multifaceted and quite complex. He’s closer to Uncle Tupelo than The Kingston Trio (grin).
The Honey and Salt record is indeed very good, and besides just being good music I hope it helps remind people of Sandburg too.
I’m not a skilled enough musician to cop many jazz moves, but over the past year I’ve combined various Sandburg poems with music I write and help to perform.
Thanks for this Richard, it sounds intriguing. I sat right next to Matt Wilson when he performed with Liberation Music Orchestra at Cadogan Hall and I’ve felt a close affinity eversince. I’ll lookout for this one. And with Christmas coming I’d also recommend Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-o.
Thank you Richard.
Those who like poetry+jazz might also enjoy “Home”, a wonderful album of music by Steve Swallow set to the verse of American poet Robert Creely (1926-2005). It was released by ECM in 1980 and features Sheila Jordan, Steve Kuhn (some of his best solos ever), Dave Liebman and Bob Moses.