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Chicago Stories and Beyond
A Review of Matt Wilson's Honey and Salt
Josh Langhoff

In 2017, the drummer and composer Matt Wilson accomplished a rare feat. Not only was his album, Honey and Salt: Music Inspired By the Poetry of Carl Sandburg, one of the year’s most accessible jazz releases; it was also one of the most experimental. The accessibility was on full display at September’s Chicago Jazz Festival, where Wilson’s quintet played to a hometown crowd, or at least the next best thing: Wilson grew up downstate, next to Sandburg’s hometown of Galesburg, and Sandburg famously made his poetic name with 1915’s Chicago Poems. The band’s music alternated between raucous, New Orleans-inspired funk grooves and pretty, country-flavored songs led by guitarist and singer Dawn Thomson. The enthusiastic Millennium Park crowd ate it up.

I’d lured my twelve-year-old son, a budding guitarist, to his first Jazz Fest with the promise of a train ride and junk food, and we’d arrived earlier in the afternoon for a set by Chicago jazz legend Roscoe Mitchell. My son sat politely while Mitchell and his band alternated long solos that showcased their extended techniques. (Mitchell explored some fluttery, squeaky patterns beyond the upper range of his soprano saxophone.) When the band swelled to a tuneless cacophony, I was in free jazz heaven; my son asked how soon we could eat. After Mitchell’s band finished, we visited a food truck and threw a football around by the Art Institute, then returned to the park. When Wilson’s band started playing, a light seemed to go on behind my son’s eyes. This was jazz as he understood it, with reference points—melodies, steady rhythms, a guitar, poetry and songs—he knew how to enjoy. The band’s music reached from the stage like a convivial handshake.

Coincidentally, Roscoe Mitchell’s latest album, the ruminative Bells for the South Side, sits next to Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt on the most recent NPR Jazz Critics’ Poll; they were respectively voted the #7 and #8 jazz albums of 2017. Even though they sound very different from one another, both albums result from musical experiments—you can hear their musicians testing out new ideas and forms. The idea of experimental jazz has enjoyed a sometimes fraught history, with traditional players griping about the liberties taken by more “out” musicians. (“He’s trying new things, but he hasn’t mastered his instrument yet,” the bandleader Maynard Ferguson infamously complained of free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman.) In general, though, musicians tend to investigate and appreciate what their peers are doing, and tastes overlap. Especially in our modern jazz landscape, where small audiences exist for just about any subgenre you can name, playing a variety of sensibilities makes it easier for musicians to pick up gigs. Over the course of his twenty-five-year career, Wilson has drummed on records of spacey explorations and straightforward standards, excelling at both while cultivating a spectrum of friendships. His experimenting on Honey and Salt is both practical and gregarious. On each song, Wilson and his collaborators seem to be asking themselves, “Which technique will make this particular Sandburg poem really pop?”

Wilson chooses eighteen short works spanning Sandburg’s career, from Chicago Poems to some that first appeared in 1951’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Poems, and arranges his source material differently from track to track. No two settings sound alike. This is even more impressive when you consider the album only features five musicians: a rhythm section of Wilson and bassist Martin Wind, the horn duo of cornetist Ron Miles and multi-reedist Jeff Lederer, and singer-guitarist Dawn Thomson. Sometimes Wilson writes gentle prairie waltzes for her, lovely enough; but the more interesting songs let Thomson deliver poems as though they were jazz heads. The album-opening “Soup” (“I saw a famous man eating soup…”) becomes a twisting tune for Thomson’s voice and guitar over a hard-swinging blues groove, the horns punctuating Sandburg’s phrases. After Thomson finishes the melody, the punctuation takes over, and everyone solos together in a jumble that’s as fun as it is noisy. Throughout the album, such simultaneous soloing also proves an effective time-saving technique: “Soup” clocks in at 4:52, short for a contemporary jazz tune, and it’s one of just a handful that exceed four minutes.

For other poems, Wilson invites guest musicians to recite rather than play. Pianist Carla Bley reads “To Know Silence Perfectly” before and after a simple theme for horns and guitar, her unadorned voice bids listeners to notice the silences between the phrases. Using a completely different strategy, the bassist Christian McBride turns “Anywhere and Everywhere People” into a rhythmic game for the horn section. Every time he says one of a few key words, cornet and sax match his syllables with short melodic motifs, situating Sandburg’s wry social commentary in the aural company of the Beat poets who came a generation later. Occasionally the readers really ham it up, but the band usually has a different wrinkle in mind. After the actor Jack Black growls out the grizzled advice of “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz”—“Be happy kid, go to it, but not too doggone happy”—drums and soprano sax contradict him, unfurling a three- minute duet of slaphappy rhythm and melody.

Honey and Salt is full of such high-spirited moments, with soloists jostling to outdo one another over busy one- or two-chord grooves. Wilson has arranged his music to heighten Sandburg’s own populism. The American populist impulse has always flirted with darker temptations, some of which—nativism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism—continue to rear their ugly heads in our politics. But the populism of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems reflects the open-hearted everyman attitude the poet ascribed to his adopted city. This attitude would have been easy to parody—imagine a solemn voice intoning the phrase “city of the big shoulders” over majestic horn fanfares, and try not to gag—but Wilson has wisely chosen poems that showcase Sandburg’s smaller, more playful or thoughtful sides. At one point, he reduces everything to his own drum kit and the poet’s words. In “Fog,” Wilson’s moody solo accompanies Sandburg’s own recording of the poem, a welcome breather that forever changes the way listeners will read this much-anthologized metaphor. “Drum solo plus recorded poem” is an unlikely recipe for a crowd pleaser, but in the context of this project, Wilson makes “Fog” a centerpiece of both album and live set.

As happens with any noble experimenter, Wilson doesn’t always succeed. One four-song mid-album stretch focuses on what Wilson has called in an interview “touchy feely Americana”— those polite prairie waltzes that sound fine for a single song, but grow wearing when lumped together. Nor do all the songs translate to a live setting. “Choose” makes a fun, madcap march (with piccolo!) from a poem inspired by Sandburg’s time as a Milwaukee Socialist:

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.


On record, the entire band belts out the poem as a mock protest song, its melody romping through several different keys. It turns out this melody is hard to sing—too hard, at least, for Wilson’s Jazz Fest audience. When Wilson tried to press us into a group singalong, we rewarded him by staring blankly back at the stage. “Choose” might not take the place of “This Land Is Your Land” any time soon, but like all the experiments on Honey and Salt, the song functions best as the solution to a problem: How to best capture the spirit of this poem? With Carl Sandburg’s poems refracted through Matt Wilson’s skill at arranging, those solutions are smart and easy to love, rooted in American tradition while continually searching for new ways to hear it.

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to regional Mexican music.

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