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Matt Wilson finds music in Sandburg poetry


Matt Wilson, "Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg" (Palmetto).

How cool is this? The relatively low repute of Carl Sandburg's poetry after his death took him out of the celebrity world he was always so conflicted about. (A white-haired celebrity himself, he once sarcastically instructed a Maitre' D to seat him at the front of a restaurant "where I can see all the ce-le-bre-teeeeees"). That meant that the position of Great Old American Folk Poet would forever be filled henceforth by Robert Frost.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Sandburg's sardonic free verse and the lyrics to rock and country music  is so much closer than rock is to Frost that it's criminal that Sandburg's work has been ignored for an embarrassingly long time by musicians.

Jazz drummer/composer Matt Wilson has ended that, he tells us, because he has some connection to Sandburg's memory. He and Sandburg "both hail from the Prairie Lands of Knox County, Illinois and like many of that region we are both of Swedish descent." And, in his family, much cherished was the Life Magazine that photographed Sandburg's visit to Wilson's relatives on their farm. His mother afterward might well have told people she just met that "we may have eaten off the same plates and sat in the same chairs as Carl Sandburg."

His laconic poetry and comfort in being a wiseguy mixes inspirationally with the jazz Wilson has written and his musicians play. A lot of poetry is recited here and "illustrated" with enormous wit and musicianship by Ron Miles on cornet, Jeff Lederer on reeds, Martin Wind on acoustic bass guitar, Dawn Thomson on guitar and Wilson on drum. A loop of Sandburg reciting "Fog" is heard over Wilson improvising over it. Who doesn't want to introduce people who don't know the poetry -- especially kids -- to lines like "I write what I know on one side of the paper/and what I don't know on the other./Fire likes dry paper and wet paper laughs at fire" and "I sang to you and the moon/But only the moon remembers."

Wilson, it seems, seldom, if ever, knows how to be uncreative. Guest stars here include Jack Black, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Rufus Reid, Carla Bley, Christian McBride and John Scofield -- all as readers. That will tell you something.

3 1/2 stars (out of four)





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