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The Open Asking Hand: Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

Using typical yardsticks, Matt Wilson is one of the premier drummers in jazz. He’s been voted Musician of the Year, been awarded Album of the Year, graced the covers of leading jazz magazines, won polls; he works constantly and shares bandstands with the world’s leading musicians. But what makes Wilson so special within the jazz community is the joy he spreads wherever he goes.


Wilson’s Honey and Salt ensemble performed in the UMass Old Chapel on Wednesday, February 6, as the Magic Triangle Jazz Series continued its 30th season. Within the last five years, Wilson has lost his wife, Felicia, and his brother, Mark, and is raising his four teenage children. But those travails have not diminished the ebullience of the drummer or his music. During both an afternoon UMass workshop and on stage that night, Wilson inspired and entertained while making everyone in his presence feel like a valued friend.


Wilson has the witty, down-home know-how of the poet Carl Sandburg, the instigator for Honey and Salt. They were born a town apart in west-central Illinois, are distantly related, and share a straight-forward unstuffiness that is charming and disarming. Both are media savvy, prodigiously talented, and love jazz.


The concert, which featured the poetry of Sandburg set to music by Wilson, followed the contour of his celebrated 2017 Palmetto recording. The lynchpin of the project is singer and guitarist Dawn Thomson, whose gorgeous voice gave life to the words. Elsewhere during the 75-minute set, Priscilla Page, Marty Ehrlich, John Sinton, Michael Schurter and yours truly recited short poems.


The music was exuberant, elegiac, and accessible. As Wave Follows Wave, (“As wave follows wave, so new men take old men’s places”) is also the title of Wilson’s 1996 debut album featuring Dewey Redman, Larry Goldings and Cecil McBee. It unfurled as a lovely dirge featuring the brushed flugelhorn of Nadje Noordhuis and acoustic bass guitarist Martin Wind. We Must Be Polite, with its Fats Domino-like groove, included an Ayler-inflected tenor saxophone solo by Jeff Lederer. Offering and Rebuff (“I could love you as dry roots love rain. I could hold you as branches in the wind brandish petals. Forgive me for speaking so soon,”) would have sounded right at home in a Nashville night spot. Choose (“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,”) was delivered as an impish march. Fog, (“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over city and harbor on silent haunches and then moves on,”) perhaps Sandburg’s most famous line, featured a recorded reading by the poet, in synced dialogue with the drums.


The poems were simple, profound, well integrated into the music and easily understood by the 125 attendees. All praise to Thomson, the readers, quality microphones, and sound engineer Sam Johnson.


Although Honey and Salt is a distinctly American project, three-fifths of the band was born elsewhere. Thomson, who spent a summer studying with Ted Dunbar at UMass’ Jazz in July, is from Montreal. Noordhuis, who was subbing for Ron Miles, has been through the Valley a few times with Maria Schneider’s Orchestra; she’s from Sydney, Australia. Wind, one of Wilson’s longest-standing collaborators, is from Flensburg, Germany. Together with the Los Angeles-born Lederer, also a veteran Matt Wilson bandmate, the group inhabits the music like a well-worn farm tool.


There is a rich history of jazz and poetry interacting in performance, from the Harlem Renaissance, to the Beats, to hip-hop. In 2016, the Magic Triangle Series hosted the world premiere of “Wild Lines”, Jane Ira Bloom’s work using the poems and letters of Emily Dickinson. Bloom and Wilson both embarked on their projects after winning Chamber Music America New Works grants. Honey and Salt will be added to the small but growing list of multi-disciplinary masterpieces. We got to see it live, in person.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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