Hal Willner (1956-2020)

Duke Ellington famously said that there are only two types of music: good and ‘the other kind’. Hal Willner spent most of his professional life living that maxim.

The producer, curator and soundtrack composer, who died aged 64 on 7th April 2020, was way ahead of the game.

His never-boring albums were like cross-genre playlists, 30 years before Spotify. In his world, it was totally natural to pair Todd Rundgren with Thelonious Monk, Lou Reed with Kurt Weill, The Replacements with Walt Disney, Chuck D with Charles Mingus.

Inspired by his mentor Joel Dorn, Orson Welles’ radio productions and albums like A Love Supreme, Sketches Of Spain, The White Album, Satanic Majesties, Yusef Lateef’s Part Of The Search and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Case Of The 3-Sided Stereo Dream, he became fascinated by telling stories with sound.

During the 1980s, Willner was somewhat of a ‘Zelig’ figure on the New York scene. In 1981, he became the long-time musical director of ‘Saturday Night Live’ (while driving a cab during the day) and put together tribute albums to Fellini’s favourite composer (Amacord Nino Rota) and Kurt Weill (Lost In The Stars), the latter beginning a long, fruitful association with Lou Reed.

Then there was That’s The Way I Feel Now (still missing from streaming services… I’m working on it…) from 1984, inspired by Willner’s trip to a Thelonious Monk tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, as he related to writer Howard Mandel: ‘The jazz people playing Monk’s music were making it boring. Monk’s music was never boring. When Oscar Peterson came on, that was it – he had even put Monk down.’

Hal fought back with a brilliant Monk tribute album featuring Was (Not Was), Donald Fagen, Dr John, Todd Rundgren, Elvin Jones, Joe Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and Carla Bley. (Fact fans: Elton John chose the below track as one of his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1986, singling out Kenny Kirkland’s superlative piano solo.)

1988’s Stay Awake repeated the trick, a positively psychedelic voyage through the music of Walt Disney’s movies and TV shows. The stand-outs were legion but included James Taylor, Branford Marsalis and The Roches’ ‘Second Star To The Right’, Sun Ra’s ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’, The Replacements’ ‘Cruella de Vil’, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ and Ringo’s ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.

Willner was at it again with ‘Night Music’, the much-missed, short-lived TV show fronted by David Sanborn which brought esteemed musical guests in to jam with a crackerjack house band (usually Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, Hiram Bullock and Don Alias).

It’s quite moving to see often-overlooked greats of American music (Van Dyke Parks, Pharoah Sanders, Elliott Sharp, Sonny Rollins, Slim Gaillard) getting their due and sharing the stage with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson and John Cale. So Willner did a superb job, but if only Jools Holland’s invitation to co-host had got lost in the mail…

In the 1990s, Hal worked on Robert Altman’s movie masterpieces ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Kansas City’, and then came possibly this writer’s favourite album of the decade, Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, a sprawling, kaleidoscopic audio journey through the jazz great’s work featuring Robbie Robertson, Bill Frisell, Keith Richards, Julius Hemphill, Henry Rollins, Vernon Reid and Elvis Costello. The Kinks’ Ray Davies also directed a superb documentary about the making of the album:

Willner also helmed Marianne Faithfull’s well-received 1987 comeback album Strange Weather. More recently, he curated many special ‘theme’ concerts, including a memorable gig at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012 dedicated to the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, featuring Antony Hegarty, Nona Hendryx, Tim Robbins and Eric Mingus. Hal was also instrumental in bringing Reed’s ‘Berlin’ multimedia show to the stage for the first time.

Farewell to a real one-off. Music needs a lot more like him.

Hal Willner (6 April 1956 – 7 April 2020)

Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires: Second Sight

marc johnson

Released October 1987

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, November 1987?

8/10

In rock, the two-guitar setup is standard. But in jazz and fusion, not so standard.

Since 1987, there have been a number of two-guitar celebrity summits (such as Scofield/Metheny, Scofield/Frisell, Stern/Eric Johnson, Carlton/Ritenour etc) but ex-Bill Evans bassist Marc Johnson’s superb ECM solo albums, ’85’s Bass Desires and Second Sight, both featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell, quite possibly started off the recent trend.

1987’s Second Sight was considered somewhat of a disappointment on its original release, but for me this is the superior album of the two.

I was a major Scofield fan when I bought it in ’87 but didn’t know Frisell’s name at all. I’m really glad it was this album which revealed his incredible playing to me. Some of the interplay between Frisell and Scofield is nothing less than miraculous, although one could hardly think of two more different guitarists in approach.

They leave each other space to play and at times even inadvertently double parts. The ever-reliable Peter Erskine slightly overplayed on the first Bass Desires album but here expertly marshals the material without ever being overbearing, and the compositions are so fresh, memorable and catchy.

Only the opening ‘Crossing The Corpus Callosum’ sounds like a studio jam session, but this is no ordinary jam; Scofield’s emotive bluesy cries dissolve into a fantastically-eerie Frisell ambient soundscape, leading the track inexplicably into David Lynch territory.

‘Small Hands’ and ‘Hymn For Her’ are shimmering, moving ballads, with the guitarists’ approaches meshing beautifully. ‘Sweet Soul’ is a soulful slow swinger full of fantastic Scofield soloing.

‘1951’ is a superb Frisell composition evoking Thelonious Monk’s best work. ‘Thrill Seekers’ simply swings like hell and features a classic Frisell fuzzbox solo. ‘Twister’ is great fun, Scofield’s affectionate ode to surf rock with some very funky bass and guitar interplay and a short drum solo almost as memorable as Ringo’s on Abbey Road.

As far as I know, the band toured Europe but never the UK. Would love to have seen them. The performance below is really special. No wonder Frisell is grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout.

Space-Age Muzak: Lyle Mays’ Street Dreams

lyle maysGeffen Records, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, 1988

9/10

I was a fan of most things jazz/rock as a 16-year-old, scuttling off to HMV or Virgin in central London to buy the latest stuff by John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, Steps Ahead, John Scofield, Bireli Lagrene and Miles.

Whilst Pat Metheny was never a favourite, I dug American Garage and 80/81, and always had a soft spot for Lyle Mays’ keyboard playing. His 1987 debut album featured a fantastic band (Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, Billy Drewes, Alex Acuna and Nana Vasconcelos) and promised a lot for the future.

1988’s Street Dreams didn’t disappoint. It is to some extent a big-budget ‘vanity project’, full of guest appearances and experiments, but it’s all the better for that and virtually impossible to categorise. Recorded exclusively at the Power Station in New York, Street Dreams has the range and ambition of some key pop albums of the era – yup, this is jazz’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome… It also for the most part avoids the new-age sentimentality that Metheny is sometimes prone to.

lyle mays

I delved deeply into Street Dreams – it was a real Walkman album, creating a movie in one’s mind. To this day, I seldom listen to a tune in separation; I have to check out the whole thing in one sitting.

‘Feet First’ sounds like an outtake from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly with the vocals taken off (and features some classic Steve Gadd); ‘August’ and ‘Hangtime’ are superb tone poems featuring tasteful work from Frisell, Johnson and Peter Erskine; ‘Before You Go’ is space-age muzak with sprawling orchestrations out of the Claus Ogerman book, and ‘Possible Straight’ is cracking big-band jazz with some great drumming by Steve Jordan.

The title track is just bonkers and has to be heard to be believed. It takes in elements of prog rock, modern classical (with its brooding orchestra, gorgeous oboe and Reich-influenced marimba), New Age textures and a playful, Hermeto Pascoal-style Latin workout with Mays’s piano at its most Keith Jarrett-like.

Here’s part 3:

Compared to the sterility of most major-label jazz releases these days, Street Dreams still sounds pretty fresh, even if it is a touch lighter than what passes for jazz/rock or fusion in 2015. Lyle Mays’s solo career unsurprisingly never returned to this kind of ambitious project, moving to the piano trio format for 1993’s Fictionary, and he has never again been given the budget to repeat the Street Dreams formula. Shame.