#MutualNight: Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

[For a quick refresher on what #MutualNight posts entail and how they relate to Mormonism, read this.]

Full disclosure before I  get started: Matt Wilson is one of my favorite jazz drummers and musicians. I’d put his last two albums (2016’s Beginning of a Memory and 2014’s Gathering Call) in my top 5 albums of their respective years, and his Christmas album is my favorite Christmas album.

And yet I’ve put off talking about Honey and Salt. And that’s for one major reason: Carl Sandburg.

See, Wilson and Sandburg were both born in Knox County, Illinois. And Wilson is a fan of Sandburg. Such a fan, in fact, that this album pays tribute to Sandburg by setting his poetry to music.

And I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve read very little Carl Sandburg. I’ve been afraid for the last month plus that I couldn’t do justice to the poetry, and thus to the album.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t listened, or that I haven’t enjoyed it. For the first two weeks I had Honey and Salt, I basically didn’t listen to anything else. Frankly, the album has made me into a Sandburg fan.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Each song is a setting of a Sandburg poem. Some of the poems are sung, and some are recited. But this isn’t a nouveau-Beat/So I Married an Axe-Murderer/coffee-shop-in-the-90s thing. Wilson is one of the most charismatic performers I’ve seen. The musicians are virtuosic. And Wilson is a deeply melodic drummer. Also, he has a great sense of humor.

And the songs! The poetry and the music are intertwined; the music was clearly written to fit the songs.

The album kicks off with a chunky bass riff and off-kilter horns that match the off-kilter poetry of “Soup.”

“Anywhere and Everywhere People” keeps the funk coming. The song highlights the care Wilson put into matching the music to the poetry. The horns are in direct conversation with the narrator, hitting in time with end-of-line accents. The saxophone solo is almost more texture than solo, with Lenny Pickett-ish altissimo. That’s not to say there aren’t solos, but they owe more to, say, the textures of early Miles Davis fusion than the bebop lines of Charlie Parker.

Night Stuff” backs away from the driving beats of earlier songs, replacing them with a floating, haunting feel. Partly its the impressionistic words of the poem, partly it’s the funereal beat. Partly it’s the singer, who floats along over the music, and partly it’s the croaking bass clarinet that starts the song. The trumpet solo is largely long languid notes, and, even when it moves faster, it’s in no hurry to get anywhere. The bass clarinet plays faster lines, but still manages to be almost ghostly.

Then “We Must Be Polite.” If you’re not familiar with “We Must Be Polite,” stop reading now and click the link. The poem is a pure delight, as charming as anything I’ve read. The music matches the delight, hinting at the Bo Diddley beat, but skewing it just enough to keep the listener off-balance. The song becomes explosive when the horns begin to solo. And the subtle touches—right after the narrator reads “If an elephant knocks on your door,” Wilson has a short burst of frantic snare strikes, the drum mirroring the knocking on the door.

That’s not it, of course, but it’s enough to give a taste of the joy the album contains. Wilson is a modest drummer. Which doesn’t mean he’s a poor drummer; rather, he’s not interested in making this a drum album. Instead, this is a musical album, a poetry album, and, best of all, a remarkably fun album. Honey and Salt is contemporary jazz at its best.