You kinda knew Matt Wilson was headed somewhere valuable when his first album dropped a snatch of stoic philosophy from Carl Sandburg and got Dewey Redman to play “Sweet Betsy From Pike” (which was part of The American Songbag anthology Sandburg published in 1927). The bandleader has inventive ideas about the way the arts can intermingle. Spoken word and song have flecked his largely instrumental work ever since, and he’s actively harked to his Midwestern roots.
Wilson’s Honey and Salt group deals exclusively with Sandburg’s verse, and this new disc not only reminds how whimsical a poet the master truly was, but how how gifted the drummer is at arrangements and presentations. The program shifts and shifts, but each turn introduces a genuinely discrete approach to the verse at hand. Christian McBride intones the social strata thesis “Anywhere and Everywhere People” while Ron Miles and Jeff Lederer fly expressively around him. Dawn Thompson coos a campfire lament that manages to synopsize heartbreak with the line “love is a fool star” while bringing some twang to the party.
The core ensemble (bassist Martin Wind rounds out the quintet) is versatile enough to cover this willful variety. As Jack Black echoes Ken Nordine on “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz,” Lederer and Wilson freebop their retorts. When Bill Frisell demurely asserts Sandburg’s thoughts on “Paper 2,” the group rolls through some bawdy swing. Rufus Reid’s gritty basso enhances the noir vibe of “Trafficker.” Carla Bley’s hush on “To Know Silence Perfectly” contrasts with a bittersweet chamber music miniature. Ultimately, the voices themselves feel like instruments.
A tip: don’t doubt that Midwestern affinity between honoree and honorer. Wilson’s Illinois home town abuts the poet’s birthplace, and when the drummer eerily mallets his toms as Sandburg’s recorded voice repeats the lines of “Fog,” the performance cuts to the essence of this irresistible record: the connections are deep.