Matt Wilson Credit: Courtesy the artist

Carl Sandburg died 50 years ago this July, but he remains one of America’s most widely known and read poets. For drummer Matt Wilson, who grew up downstate in Knoxville, Sandburg was a constant presence. The poet was from neighboring Galesburg, and buildings named after him—a junior high school, a shopping mall—were everywhere. As a teenager in the late 70s, Wilson connected with Sandburg’s writing, in part because it largely dispensed with rhymes. “I was already on the lookout for things that were out of the ordinary, and when we studied his work then, I was kind of drawn to it because it didn’t follow the rules,” he says. “I dug that.” In high school Wilson wrote a term paper about Sandburg, and was excited to discover that the poet loved music—including jazz, to which Wilson had already begun to devote his life.

Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

Sun 9/3, 7:10 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

After moving to Brooklyn in 1992, Wilson found a Sandburg anthology in a local bookstore, and it reignited his interest. In 2002 he won a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant to set Sandburg’s poetry to original music, but after a flurry of performances in the following year—including one in Galesburg—Wilson put the project on the back burner. Not until he resuscitated the material for a 2013 gig in New York did he seriously consider turning it into an album.

When Wilson’s wife, Felicia, lost her long battle with leukemia in 2014, he says he started thinking about finishing things he’d started. He noticed that 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Sandburg’s death, and that 2018 would be the 140th anniversary of his birth, so in 2016 he recorded the Sandburg pieces with an agile band featuring regular collaborators Jeff Lederer (reeds) and Martin Wind (bass), along with lyrical cornetist Ron Miles and singer-­guitarist Dawn Thomson—an old friend who’d also set Sandburg’s work to original music. Last week Wilson released Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto).

When Wilson devised the project, he was immersed in Sandburg’s work, listening to albums the poet made for the Caedmon label in the 50s and 60s. “I love the way he reads, and it’s great to listen to the rhythm,” he says. One of the best pieces on Honey and Salt is “Fog,” where Wilson plays along to a Sandburg recording. “At the time, whenever I was traveling I would read him a lot and make notes. I still have the piece of paper for the poem ‘Choose’ that says ‘6/8 march.’ I didn’t even know what the melody was going to be, but I knew it would have that feel.”

On Wilson’s new album, the track “Choose” combines that march rhythm with a martial horn line and the band chanting the poem’s text: “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.” If those lines feel timely, it’s no coincidence: the presidential campaign was in full swing when the band hit the studio last October.

“‘Soup’ is about Trump, the celebrity aspect of things,” Wilson says. In part, the poem reads, “His name was in the newspapers that day / Spelled out in tall black headlines / And thousands of people were talking about him. / When I saw him, / He sat bending his head over a plate / Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.”

On about half of Honey and Salt, Thomson sings Sandburg’s words using Wilson’s melodies. For other tracks, the drummer enlisted friends from the jazz community to recite the poems however they chose, whether droll or sinister—the guests include guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield, composer Carla Bley, and actor Jack Black, who’s married to Charlie Haden’s daughter Tanya. Wilson himself is an avuncular, reliably funny fellow, seamlessly working his cornpone humor into his sophisticated music—and he hopes to recruit like-minded folks from the Chicago jazz scene to read Sandburg onstage during his festival set.  v