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Hal Willner

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-03-16

Hal Willner (born 1957) is an American music producer working in recording, films, TV and live events. He is best known for assembling tribute albums and events featuring a wide variety of artists and musical styles (jazz, classical, rock, Tin Pan Alley). His first tribute album was Amarcord Nino Rota in 1981.

Musician located part of producer Hal Willner's genius in his "faith in the power of artistic accident." As the compiler and orchestrator of several albums on which a diverse roster of musicians interpret the works of others--chiefly eccentric modern composers--Willner has made an art of allowing art to happen. Although these anthologies come very much from Willner's personal vision and natural eclecticism, he lets the artists experiment with the material and simply captures the results on tape. Along the way he has earned the respect of an astonishing spectrum of musicians and a fair number of critics and listeners. He has also reached millions as the music director of NBC-TV's popular Saturday Night Live. As Terry Adams--a player regularly enlisted by the producer--noted in Musician, "Hal is the kind of guy who knows that when something is absurd, it is beautiful." And in case any doubt remains about his predilections, Willner himself has said, "I don't like safe records."

Willner was born in the late 1940s in Philadelphia; his father owned a delicatessen. As a teenager he absorbed the adventurous musical spirit of the 1960s. Listening to radio--which was then free of the rigid demographics dictating contemporary formats--he was exposed to an incredible variety of recordings, some conceived of as virtual aural odysseys. He was first struck by ambitious rock albums by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Blood Sweat & Tears, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. "Things like that changed my life, because they were a lot more than music; they were records that had beginnings, middles and ends," he told Musician. "Overtures, undertures, out-tures. Records had caught up with film and literature as a real art form." At the same time, Willner was captivated by radio dramas like Inner Sanctum and those produced by famed actor-director Orson Welles and the Mercury Players, as well as the psychedelic, satirical recordings of the Firesign Theatre. A degree of mystery and depth was achieved in this sound-only medium that approximated the power of movies. Over the years, the idea of a "conceptual frame" for a record went the way of vinyl and free-form radio--a cause of dismay for Willner. Yet he held onto this theory of aural cinema and learned over the years to trust his instincts. He described his "basic production philosophy" to Musician: "The worst thing you can do is be boring. I'd rather be bad. I love taking chances, and if you do that, you usually won't fail."

Willner graduated from high school in 1974 and went on to attend New York University. By age 16, he told Pulse!, "I no longer found rock 'n' roll exciting"; it was at this point that he encountered jazz masterworks by saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpeter Miles Davis, and bass innovator Charles Mingus. Soon he was a jazz fanatic, attending performances whenever possible. "I moved to New York, where I saw [Mingus] play more than any other jazz artist," he recalled. Mingus was actually his neighbor and "the perfect kind of musician for me to follow. He was always unpredictable and consistently had great bands. And I loved his compositions."

One of the customers who frequented the deli owned by Willner's father was a record producer named Joel Dorn. Willner had already done some work for a record distributor and was given a chance by Dorn to work as an assistant. Willner worked as an engineer on several Dorn recording projects; he sat in on recording sessions with jazz luminary Rahsaan Roland Kirk and jazz-pop eccentric Leon Redbone, among others, and imbibed Dorn's flair for spontaneity in production. "I was 18 at the time," he explained in Musician, "an impressionable age." Dorn "was the first to take these jazz artists and make Sgt. Pepper albums with them," added Willner, drawing a comparison to the Beatles' breakthrough 1967 "concept album." He went on to reveal: "I knew I wanted to be a producer early on. I can read music, can play a little piano and guitar, but I'm definitely more comfortable on the other side of the glass. I'd never let myself get skilled in anything--when I wasn't playing piano like [virtuoso Vladimir] Horowitz in three weeks I said, 'Screw this.' So I'm not a frustrated musician, which probably helps. Not that this has been easy. But having the luck of occasionally being in the right place at the right time has been a big part of it."

In 1980 Willner landed a job as coordinator of "sketch music adaptation" for the freewheeling late-night comedy program Saturday Night Live. Around the same time, he assembled the first of his omnibus albums, Amarcord Nino Rota: Interpretations of Nino Rota Music From the Films of Federico Fellini. "Amarcord" means "I remember" and is the title of one of Italian director Fellini's films. Rota's atmospheric, carnivalesque work provided the perfect aural dimension for Fellini's daring, surrealistic creations, and Willner assembled a cast of musicians to explore that music's outer reaches. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from the new-wave band Blondie--whom Willner had met on Saturday Night Live --and renegade jazz stylist Carla Bley were among the personnel involved.

Next came That's the Way I Feel Now, interpretations of pieces by Thelonious Monk, the maverick who revolutionized jazz piano and wrote some of the most enduring compositions of the modern era. For that project Willner mixed pop artists--Donald Fagenson and David Weiss of Was (Not Was), Joe Jackson, Todd Rundgren, Bobby McFerrin, and Peter Frampton--with experienced jazz and roots-based players like Dr. John and Gil Evans. Willner told Pulse! that, for him, the 1984 Monk project is "the only true tribute" of all the albums he's produced.

Willner next undertook a record devoted to the songs of German composer Kurt Weill, whose work with playwright Bertolt Brecht remains some of the darkest and most evocative in the history of musical theater and has been performed by the likes of rockers David Bowie and the Doors. Lost in the Stars, Willner's 1985 Weill collection, features such masters of the moody cabaret-pop tradition as Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Sting, and Marianne Faithfull.

1988 saw the release of an even more ambitious Willner brainchild: Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. Willner once again convened a varied crew of performers from the worlds of jazz and pop. Highlights include Irish rock singer Sinead O'Connor assaying "Someday My Prince Will Come," post-punk legends the Replacements taking on "Cruella DeVille," from 101 Dalmatians, and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr singing "When You Wish Upon a Star." The album also showcases jazz masters Sun Ra, Betty Carter, and Branford Marsalis and such rock adventurers as Don Was (Donald Fagenson), Los Lobos, and Waits, whose version of the seven dwarves' "Heigh-ho," from Snow White, was the favorite of Village Voice reviewer J. Hoberman, who, though he expressed mixed feelings about the rest of the compilation, approvingly dubbed the singer's gravelly, over-the-top romp a "Martian field holler."

Willner has also done considerable television and film work as a music supervisor and has produced albums by Faithfull, saxophonist David Sanborn, and writers Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs, among many others. Even so, Willner told Musician, he generally prefers his own projects to these single-artist ventures "cause you have to get inside [artists], and it's an emotional roller coaster." He continued, elaborating, "To make a real representation of where the artist is at the time--the right material, musicians, the best performance--it takes a certain amount of attention. I can't imagine going from one artist to the next as some producers do."

Willner was the creative force behind the acclaimed television production Night Music, which brought together diverse players in a live performance setting, much the way he had in the studio for the Rota, Weill, and Disney projects. In 1990 he released an anthology of music by Carl Stalling, the eclectic wizard whose orchestral work--furious pastiches of classics, popular tunes, and onomatopoeia--attends the cartoon exploits of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and other Warner Bros. animated characters. Of The Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons, 1936-58, a Down Beat reviewer commented, "Willner has taken Stalling's incidental music and edited various pieces of it together to create and sustain moods, feels, ideas. It takes a while--if you're a Looney Tunes fanatic like I am--for the music to detach itself from the cartoon images it's always accompanied, but Willner's success comes in how he manages to allow it to do just that."

In 1992 Willner produced Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, which appeared on the Columbia label. The Mingus project--another exercise in Willner "casting"--had been germinating in the producer's mind since 1984; long before deciding on which of the composer's pieces he would approach, Willner attempted to approximate a Mingus mood by constructing a "mockup" of the planned compilation using bits and pieces from such Folkways Records archival material as Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico and Witches and War Whoops in place of the actual Mingus compositions. Willner's manager introduced him to Mingus's widow, Sue, who encouraged the producer to pursue the project, and through musician Francis Thumm, he got access to a collection of instruments invented by avant-garde composer Harry Partch. Though Mingus and Partch never met, the instruments--made of glass bottles, wood, wire, disassembled pump organs, and other found objects and sporting names like "marimba eroica" and "cloud chamber bowls"--helped create a singular mood in the studio and inspired the musicians who encountered them. Pulse! writer Dan Ouellette confirmed, "Willner displays his genius in using the Partch instruments, which, with their shards and showers of distinctively unusual tones, effect a sonic eeriness and beauty well suited to Mingus's works."

With Weird Nightmare Willner avoided the pitfalls of the "tribute album"--which had become a much-imitated form--by including obscure Mingus pieces, rather than presenting just the "greatest hits," and by teaming several of them with spoken-word selections from the composer's autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. This time out Willner employed a "house band" that included guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Greg Cohen, percussionist Don Alias, clarinetist Don Byron, tuba player Art Baron, and drummer Michael Blair. The roster of guest artists, nonetheless, was as extensive as its inclusions were impressive: Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Charlie Watts recorded special sessions for the album in Spain in the midst of a tour; and Willner also coaxed startling performances, both spoken and sung, from a crazy quilt of artists that included singer-songwriters Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, and Robbie Robertson, punk diva Diamanda Galas, rapper Chuck D. of Public Enemy, poet, "thrash" singer, and Mingus freak Henry Rollins, and New Orleans pianist Dr. John.

Weird Nightmare boasts additional instrumental contributions from Vernon Reid, founder of and guitarist for the rock band Living Colour, jazz pianist Geri Allen, guitarist Marc Ribot, and Bobby Previte's jug band. "Mingus was a punk classicist," Willner remarked to Down Beat. "He didn't have any kind of stodgy feeling to his thing." Sue Mingus opined to several interviewers that her late husband would have approved of the project. And for his part, Ouellette hailed Weird Nightmare as "a gem of an album that is at turns haunting and sweetly melodic, meditative and exclamatory, driving and gentle, angry and comic."

On the heels of his Mingus opus, Willner lent production expertise to a disc by William S. Burroughs, for whom he had produced the 1990 Island Records offering Dead City Radio. The album would feature The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a duo whose work reflects both the funky street aesthetic of rap and the socially conscious protest ethic of 1960s folksingers. Though not well versed in Burroughs's literary career, the Heroes--Michael Franti and Rono Tse---agreed to work with the celebrated avante-garde novelist after hearing Dead City Radio. A staffer at Island, also the Heroes' label, and Burroughs's manager naturally turned to Willner to bring their idea to fruition. "I love to see two different worlds coming together like this," he told Pulse!, "and I really think this type of project will open a lot of doors and change a lot of lives if people hear it." Pulse! reported in July of 1993 that Willner's next enterprise would be a spoken-word compilation of musicians and celebrities reciting the works of 19th-century poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe.

With all of his far-flung accomplishments, Willner has remained true to his goal of reviving aural drama; his work in film and television and with spoken-word recording underlines his belief in the integral role music can play in establishing a mood. His "tributes" employ disparate creative figures to bring to life an art form that is more than the sum of its parts. "These records have been dreams, in a way," the producer told Rolling Stone. "A lot of people sit around with these fantasy ideas. These are the kind of records you talk about but never do." Clearly, Willner's unusual ideas have, in fact, inspired not only a lot of talking, but a lot of doing.

In January 2010 Willner produced the pirate-themed concert event Rogue's Gallery for the 2009 Sydney Festival. The mulitnational cast included Marianne Faithfull, Todd Rundgren (who had contributed to Willner's Thelonious Monk tribute album), Tim Robbins, Gavin Friday, Peter Garrett, Baby Gramps, David Thomas, Sarah Blasko, Katy Steele, Peaches, Glenn Richards, Liam Finn, Camille O’Sullivan, Kami Thompson and Marry Waterson.


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