Jazz Notes: Drummer Matt Wilson Channels Poet Laureate Carl Sandburg at Jazz Standard
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, September 8, 2017
The kinship between jazz and poetry has been a mainstay of the fine arts world, dating back to the 1920s and most prominently spawned during the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat movement and the hip-hop generation. Most often, the poets were inspired by the syncopated rhythms and fluid melodies of the music, whether it was compositionally structured or freely improvised. Likewise, poetry has also served as the wellspring of creative shifts with jazz artists.
For starters, there’s the fascination with the long-lined exuberance of the pioneering American poet Walt Whitman. The title of Weather Report’s second album in 1972 was his ecstatic poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” and in 2005 Fred Hersch rendered the poet’s magnum opus on his Leaves Of Grass album with reciters/vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Recently soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom launched a new quartet project fueled by the provocative poetry of the reclusive (but piano loving) Emily Dickinson, Wild Lines, with actress Deborah Rush reading snippets of poems in between and over the rush of the music jettisoned by drummer Bobby Previte.
But the most unique and entertaining jazz poetry recording arrives with 53-year-old drummer Matt Wilson’s ambitious Honey and Salt, his thoroughly joyful, bright, dense and at times humorous tribute to Carl Sandburg, the west-central Illinois-born writer (1878-1967) who became the poignant poet laureate of industrial America and more largely championed as the poet of the people. Roughly broken into three parts representing Sandburg’s urban life, his rural upbringing and an overlapping collision of the two, Honey and Salt is highlighted not only by Wilson’s imaginative instrumental interpretation of the poems but also by his guest list of esteemed readers, including John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Christian McBride, Rufus Reid, Carla Bley and even actor Jack Black as well as members of the drummer’s band—which he’s dubbed Honey and Salt—featuring guitarist Dawn Thomson who sings several of Sandburg’s poems as lyrics throughout the recording.
“It’s been one of my life’s callings to go for these things,” said the amiable Wilson, sitting in Lincoln Center’s Atrium, less than a week after his St. Louis-based middle brother tragically died while mowing the lawn at his rural farm. “My brother was extremely influential on me. As kids, we were always thinking of things to do even if we didn’t know we probably couldn’t do them.” He paused and noted that he was able to dedicate the album to him at the last minute of production. “So this project, the mix of poetry and the music is one of those things.”
The eclectic-styled album Honey and Salt—featuring a stellar band of longtime collaborator Jeff Lederer on multi-reeds, Ron Miles on trumpet, Thomson on guitar and Martin Wind on bass—has been long in coming. It’s his ninth album for Palmetto. The Sandburg project was jumpstarted in 2002 when Wilson received a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (Bloom was awarded the same grant for her Dickinson project in 2015). One of his first pieces was the poem “As Wave Follows Wave,” which was the title track of his debut recording featuring Dewey Redman on saxophone, Larry Goldings on organ and Cecil McBee on bass. Wilson circles back to the piece on Honey and Salt as a slow, contemplative reflection and recites the key line by himself and then communally with his band members: “As wave follows wave, so new men take old men’s places.” He said, “I wanted to revisit this as a tribute to all the years—that I’m still able to do this, that I’m still recording.”
In 2003 on Humidity, Wilson returned to the Sandburg poetry anthology for the moody “Wall Shadows” with an undergirding of Yosuke Inoue’s compelling bass craft, and then in 2012 on his Arts & Crafts album An Attitude For Gratitude, he used the poet’s words to inspire the wildly rambunctious “Bubbles” with playful drum frenzy spiced by Gary Versace’s accordion trills and the leader waxing poetic.
As he kept digging into Sandburg’s poetry and composing to them, more songs emerged so that Wilson began experimenting—figuring out the weights of the song deliveries (from solo to duo to full band) as well as the diversity of the musical style, from country-inflected to groove-charged to happy-go-lucky romps to marches to samba. He’s been touring the music for a couple of years, trying out different combinations. “That’s why the band is called Honey and Salt,” he said. “I love Sandburg’s volume of poems, Honey and Salt. I love his expression of the opposites in the poetry—sweet and salt. It’s a collision, but also an alignment and a rub. That’s what we wanted the music to accomplish.”
Wilson cites the influence of his college teacher at Wichita State University in Kansas, Dr. J.C. Combs. “He was one of the most creative and imaginative people on the planet,” he said. “He’s the one reason why I went to school there. He was into everything. But his biggest lesson to me was when he said, ‘How can we do something different with the ordinary.’ So, for this project, we didn’t have a check list of what to do. We changed the music by playing the music. When you surround yourself with people who can hear these things, you’re lucky. It’s like working with a huge community. If we try this, yes!”
Wilson gives the example of offering challenges to his band by noting that he asked Wind to play a tune with an acoustic bass guitar instead of his standard electric. “I remember Dewey Redman telling me the story about playing with Ornette,” Wilson said. “Ornette gave him a musette and said, ‘I’d like you to play this,” and he said he would and how great the challenge was for him. It was the same with Martin. He allowed me to create a sonic frame for him. He liked it and that made the project unique for him.”
Wilson’s friend and collaborator for 25 years, Lederer is a key person to the drummer manifesting his vision. “Jeff and I are really close,” Wilson said. “He’s the guy I can have that second cup of coffee with when we‘re figuring what we should try.”
Lederer notes that their professional relationship has spanned a number of projects, but the Sandburg music has been special. “This music has been around for about five years,” he said. “We even played at Sandburg’s home in Minnesota. We’ve been playing along the way, and the music has developed. We’re in a time period where’s there not much spoken word in jazz. With Matt, the words go deep. The way he phrases sound is like spoken word. It’s less mathematical. That’s why Matt is the favorite drummer of a lot of jazz singers.”
On Honey and Sand, Wilson has freed Lederer to work reeds magic alongside Miles. Their teamwork is a highlight of the recording on tunes like the noir number “Night Stuff,” where bass clarinet and trumpet circle each other and texture the arrangement, and also on the festive samba-tinged “Daybreak,” where the conversations between clarinet and trumpet are celebratory. “Ron is a spectacular musician and a true improviser,” Lederer said. “He has a quiet, intuitive way in the studio, talking very little. It’s astonishing that he’s incapable of repeating himself. On this record, he helped Matt sketch out arrangements.”
As for that connect, Wilson said, “Ron and Jeff make incredible individual statements and then together they’re remarkable. They don’t need eight choruses. They can make a statement right now.”
The sensibility of community vibrantly informs Honey and Salt with Wilson’s all-star guest list of readers. “I had always been intrigued by hip-hop recordings where they invite guests and it’s no big deal,” said Wilson. “So I decided to do the same and invite my friends that I admire—to be guests as readers but not play their instruments. I wanted to hear their voices. The first person I asked was Carla, and she was down with it. Everyone was.”
With an eye-winking sense of humor and a cool baritone, McBride recites the whimsical Sandburg mind-twisting puzzle poem “Anywhere and Everywhere People,” with such lines as “There are people so eager to be seen, they nearly always manage to be seen” and “There are people who want to be everywhere at once, and they seem to get nowhere.” Wilson says that the grooves come right out of his fascination with Talking Heads when he was in high school.
With a scamper and shuffle, Wilson leads the band though a raucous take on another humorous Sandburg poem, “We Must Be Polite,” where Scofield with a perfect dead-panned voice playfully wonders about speaking to a gorilla “very, very respectfully” and what to do “if an elephant knocks on your door.” Bill Frisell softly and patiently voices lines like “I write what I know” at the beginning and end of “Paper 2” with a jubilation of wild playing in between, and actor Jack Black gives his comic read of “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz” with brio duo support by Wilsons’s drum gusts and Lederer’s sprightly soprano sax shouts. “Of all the people I asked to read, no one said no,” Wilson said. “That was a surprise to me. I knew Jack would be great with this song, so since I’ve become friends with Charlie Haden’s children, I wrote to Tanya to see if [her husband] Jack would be interested. She replied that he was doing a movie at the moment, but right around Christmas he emailed me and said of course he’d do it. Wow, what he can do with his voice and inflections on that poem.”
Another guest slot featured Reid reading the romping “Trafficker,” with a nod to the Beat era. “We had been doing that piece as a band until Martin said we need to get Rufus,” Wilson said. “His voice turns it into a film noir. It’s a real homage that that classic beatnik vibe. The content of that poem is dark, so it was intriguing to put that together.”
Also Lovano recites “Are you a writer or a rapper” on “Paper 1.” “At first, I didn’t know how I would fit in, but I’m a storyteller,” Lovano said. “As Matt explained it, I knew it was very different, unique in fact. It was a challenge because I recited without hearing the music. Matt has a great perspective, and he was wanting us to read how we felt. By asking us to express with the poems tells you who Matt is. He’s part of that amazing generation of players recording hip things.”
Why Wilson chose Sandburg as his muse comes from a mix of artistic sensibility (the poet broke rules, like Whitman, by freeing himself from rhythm and meter and the governing rules of verse), his fascination with jazz and family ties. Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, the next town over from the drummer’s hometown of Knoxville, Illinois. Sandburg’s first cousin Charlie Krans married Wilson’s great Aunt Emma, and for the Life magazine feature on the poet in 1953, he visited the Wilson household. “My mother would always remind us that Carl Sandburg ate off the same plates at the same table and sat in the same chairs,” Wilson said. “He was a big deal, so when it came time to study poetry in grade school, Carl Sandburg was a primary subject. As I got older, I realized that he addressed the whole idea of opposing forces, just like how a lot of music becomes beautiful because of collision.”
(Krans’ dilapidated barn on the verge of collapse inspired Sandburg to write the poem “Prairie Barn,” which Wilson put to music with Lederer reciting on a scratch track waiting for a new voice. But as it turns out, his recitation on the Americana-type tune was perfect and made the final cut for the recording.)
Wilson says that when he was in junior high he started to appreciate good music. He started to seek out live concerts. “When I was 15, I went to see three shows in one week in three different venues near where I grew up in west-central Illinois,” Wilson said. “One was Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie, then Count Basie, then Oscar Peterson. That was my form of rebelling. And it was like poetry—not following the iambic pentameter rules and looking for the breadth of expression.”
An offshoot of his schoolboy days is that on Honey and Salt Wilson samples an archival audio recording of Sandberg reading his most famous poem, “Fog” (“The fog comes on little cat feet./It sits looking over harbor and city/on silent haunches and then moves on.”). That simple poem presented Wilson with one of his biggest problems, with its almost clichéd sentiment. “It ended up getting complicated because I was going to have to track someone down to read it,” he said. “But once we got it cleared that we could use this audio, one day I was listening to it in my car on repeat. That’s when I realized, hey, I can play this solo. So we kept it plain and improvised with sing form, which is really like an 8-bar blues. We erased and edited, we split up lines and traded them. It allowed for a completely different weight than the rest of the album—allowing the drums by themselves to come through in a different way.”
Sandberg became a TV celebrity in the late ‘50s with guest slots on an episode of the panel show What’s My Line? and appeared as a featured guest for dancer Gene Kelly’s 1959 TV special, with music by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. He read his new work commissioned for the program, “A Poem to Dance To,” while Kelly danced. After the show, Riddle approached Sandburg who didn’t want to talk about anything else but jazz.
Besides “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz” that Black reads on Honey and Salt, Sandburg also wrote the buoyant poem “Jazz Fantasia,” including the opening lines: “Drum on your drums, batter on your banjos, sob on the long cool winding saxophones. Go to it, O jazzmen.” Wilson calls the poem that captures the spirit of Dixieland jazz on a riverboat a gem and uses it in his various education settings. “I recite it to uptight college bands and have them improvise to it,” he said. “It opens up their sonic imaginations, and they actually welcome the sound of surprise into their music sharing.” He recalls being at a festival where the University of Oklahoma had two big bands. The first band played, then the second band’s director looked at him and said, “Do the poem,” in essence, Wilson said, “to liberate these guys from the notes.”
While it’s not specifically about jazz, in Sandburg’s early poem “Ten Definitions of Poetry,” the first line reads: “Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break the silence within definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave lengths.” This not only plays off the essence of jazz but also illuminates Bley’s gentle and spare reading of Sandburg’s “To Know Silence Perfectly,” where she begins and ends the album’s epilogue with the line: “To know silence perfectly is to know music.” Wilson says that that is the cardinal rule for free speech in music. “Improvisation is the silence between musical interludes,” he said. “So the improvisation is the silence. When we play this live, we leave a little more space to hear whatever is happening around us. Someone drops a program, a door slams then there’s silence. It’s a great observation on what music is all about. Sound and silence. You need to welcome both.”
Wilson and co. take the latest evolution of the Honey and Salt on the road this fall, including his two-night slot at Jazz Standard (September 19-20) and earlier a night at the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 15 where earlier in his career all the band members donned dorky wigs much to the delight of the open-minded fans with a sense of humor and much to the scorn of crowd members who couldn’t take a joke. This year Wilson will be with the core band as well as some artists playing there or locals reading the poetry. “I’m into the interactive and the communal,” Wilson said. “I want some simple scenery, maybe a fabric screen of the cover to drape in front of the music stands, drawings and pictures, the overlapping of voices. Everything doesn’t have to be in line. Hey, we’re hearing the music and having conversations. That’s life. I want to have the show be start-to-finish like theater.”
Editor’s Note: A truncated version of this story previously appeared in DownBeat magazine.
Cover: Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt; photo courtesy of Jazz Standard.