This past Friday Palmetto Records released an album whose full title is Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg. Each of the eighteen tracks is an original composition based on one of Sandburg’s poems, organized into three “chapters,” grouped according to thematic content, and concluding with a two-track “Epilogue.” All of the compositions were by Wilson, who also plays drums in the performing combo:
Matt Wilson (photograph by John Abbott, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz
The other members are Dawn Thomson (voice and guitar), Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds, harmonium, and voice), and Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar). Those poems that are not sung are read by Wilson, Lederer, and seven “special guests,” who are (in order of “appearance”) Christian McBride, John Scofield, Jack Black, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano, and Carla Bley. For the track based on “Fog,” which may be Sandburg’s best known (and probably shortest) poem, the “reader” is a recording of Sandburg’s own voice.
Honey and Salt is the title of a volume of Sandburg’s poetry that was published in 1963. The poems collected in that volume were written between 1953 and 1963. In other words all of the poems were written after Sandburg’s reputation had been well established; and a Complete Poems volume had already been published in 1950! Honey and Salt was the last publication by Sandburg himself before his death on July 22, 1967; and Wilson planned this album in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. For the record, none of the poems from the Honey and Salt book appear on the Wilson recording.
This should not be held against Wilson. Sandburg was also a collector of folk music; so he had some very strong thoughts about differentiating text-for-speaking from text-for-reciting. Note that I did not write “text-for-reading” in that last sentence. Every poem in Honey and Salt lends itself to recitation, frequently in highly dramatic ways. One does does not pore over these texts for the subtleties of internal and external connections, as one would have to do in taking on, for example, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Indeed, because Honey and Salt has only 111 pages, one could imagine that the complete collection could be given a theatrical presentation.
On the other hand, because Sandburg did not write text-for-reading, clarity of delivery is essential to the presentation of any of his poems, including all those predecessors of the Honey and Salt volume that were selected by Wilson. It would be fair to say that all of the narrated tracks on the album are true to Sandburg’s voice; but, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Thomson’s vocal work. One gets the impression that Thomson worked only from Wilson’s charts, meaning that she never took the trouble to read any of the poems she sang in a speaking voice, cultivating an inner sense of the subtleties in Sandburg’s approach to phrase structure.
As a result, the album, taken as a whole, is a disconcertingly uneven offering. Many of the tracks fire on all cylinders, and Wilson himself should be singled out for accompanying Sandberg’s own voice with drum phrases that impressively echoed the vocal sonorities. On the other hand too many of the tracks tend to get lost at the level of the specific words, obscuring the poetry itself for anyone encountering the text being set for the first time.