Matt Wilson

Drummer Matt Wilson said his "Honey and Salt" concerts, in which he interprets the words of poet Carl Sandburg, are different in every town, including guest readers recruited from the local community.

The departed poet Carl Sandburg, a fan of jazz, folk and rock music, will have his words set to spontaneous music this weekend in downtown Missoula.

Award-winning jazz drummer Matt Wilson is bringing his "Honey and Salt" project through town.

Wilson, who hails from Illinois just like the poet, used complete poems and excerpts on his 2017 album, "Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg." DownBeat, still the most prominent jazz publication out there, gave it a coveted five-star review.

He wrote some of the poems, like "Daybreak," into complete songs, with vocals by Dawn Thomson. For others, he recruited fellow musicians like Bill Frisell, Carla Bley and Christian McBride to read excerpts. One piece, "As Wave Follows Wave," takes lines from Sandburg's book-length poem, "The People, Yes." 

Wilson first tried adapting those stanzas for his 2001 debut, and continued the project for the intervening years before "Honey and Salt" was released, ferreting away poems and trying to interpret them as he worked on many, many other projects. (Critic Nate Chinen once said Wilson has few peers "with a broader grasp of jazz or a more natural sense of time.") 

"I would make copies of them, and then when I was traveling on flights or trains, or whatever, planes, I would just read them a lot and take notes," he said in a phone interview. Some pieces clicked immediately, others required more time to find the right mood. The genres he tapped into range from rock and blues ("Soup"), Latin jazz ("Daybreak"), classical composition ("To Know Silence Perfectly"), pastoral Americana ("Prairie Barn") to straight-ahead jazz ("Paper 2"). 

He described it as a "real challenge, but a beautiful challenge," matching arrangements with the words, and ensuring a variety, from Sandburg's playful poems to his stoic ones.

As proud as he is of the new contexts he's made, he's also confident that the poems of Sandburg, who died 1967 at age 89, are relevant today.

"The timelessness of the words and the message, it's extraordinary, it's remarkable," he said.


Wilson is coming through Montana on a grant-assisted tour, with stops at the Myrna Loy in Helena and then the Downtown Dance Collective in Missoula via the UM School of Music.

Wilson's emphatic that every show, whether in Yakima or New York, is different, "it's an exchange, it's an offering and receiving for all concerned."

The band you'll hear in Missoula differs from the one on the record. Wilson and bassist Martin Wind will back Dawn Clement on piano and vocals, with Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet and Jeff Lederer on reeds. (Clement played piano with drummer Allison Miller's band at a UM concert last year.)

Clement will cover the song "translations." The recitations fall to local guests they recruit in each town, giving a local flavor while providing a springboard for new variations.

"I would never let anybody rehearse with us, so when they read the poems we're reacting right in that moment," he said. Sometimes, he said, the guests' interpretations have "stopped us in our tracks, we were just stunned.

"Wilson, who's performed everything from avant-garde jazz to a Christmas band, is known for emphasizing lightness in his music, including his concerts.

"We just don't come into town, do the concert and leave right after," he said, preferring to "experience the places where we are" and make connections.

"It's always a delight to come into one of these towns and have a great time. It's beautiful," he said.