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.