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)

Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part Two)

9. David Sanborn Band/Al Jarreau @ Wembley Arena, November 1984

We were sitting high up behind the stage with a great view of two of the great modern American drummers: Steve Gadd (with Sanborn) and Ricky Lawson (with Jarreau). To be honest, my parents and I left in the middle of Al’s set but Sanborn was fantastic with Marcus Miller and Hiram Bullock running amok on the huge Arena stage. The saxophonist was at his commercial peak here and probably could have headlined the show.

8. Marc Almond @ The Palladium, 12th October 1986

I have absolutely no memory of why I was at this gig but it was a genuine eye-opener. Almond was long past his pop fame and seemed to be acting out his own private, Berlin-inspired drama. Looking at the footage today, I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or total sh*te.

7. Miles Davis @ Hammersmith Odeon, 21st April 1982

I remember someone shouting ‘Turn the guitar down!’ Poor Mike Stern wasn’t the critics’ flavour of the month and Miles was obviously exceptionally ill, but the gig was unforgettable. One of my first and very best. I saw Miles three or four times during the ’80s but this was the bomb for sheer atmosphere and occasion.

6. Robert Palmer @ Hammersmith Odeon, 25th September 1988

There really isn’t anyone around these days like the much-missed Robert with his gravelly voice, weirdly cosmopolitan compositions and ever-present smirk. He had a highly-drilled, sh*t-hot band with him at the Hammie Odeon too featuring Frank Blair on bass and Eddie Martinez on guitar. The gig started with a five-minute Dony Wynn drum solo which fair blew the minds of my brother and I.

5. Yes/No People @ Limelight, 9th September 1986

I think this gig was part of what was then known as the Soho Jazz Festival. There was a lively crowd of ‘jazz revival’ hipsters and rare-groove fans – this was my first taste of an underground scene that was quickly building momentum. DJ Baz Fe Jazz kicked off with some Blue Note post-bop (yes, people actually danced to that stuff) and then Yes/No People featured Steve Williamson on sax and the cracking Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike) rhythm section. The band only lasted a year or so but nearly dented the charts with their ‘Mr Johnson’ single.

4. John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra @ Hammersmith Odeon, 12th July 1984

The sign on the door said ‘Billy Cobham will not be appearing’ – heartbreaking to me at the time (McLaughlin apparently dumped Billy just a week before the tour). But Danny Gottlieb sat in with some style and John rattled off some outstanding licks in black shirt and black headband. It was bloody loud too. It was the first time many British fans had seen him since Mahavishnu Mark 1 days and as such there was a big hippie turnout.

3. Bill Withers @ Hammersmith Odeon, 18th September 1988

From memory, Bill spent most of the gig sitting at the front of the stage, talking about his life and career while Pieces Of A Dream accompanied with gentle jazz/funk. Bill wore a sweater and golfing slacks and seemed incredibly old, more Val Doonican than Curtis Mayfield.

2. Weather Report @ Dominion Theatre, 26th June 1984

The duels between keys man Zawinul and drummer Omar Hakim were spellbinding. This was clearly the dog’s b*ll*cks. Well, it was better than Duran Duran anyway. Omar’s huge shades, trash-can cymbal and big grin linger in the memory.

1. Level 42 @ Wembley Arena, 12th January 1989

Level again, but this time for all the wrong reasons. We were in the back row of the dreaded Arena, and the band were flogging their substandard Staring At The Sun album. The audience reaction to the ‘new stuff’ was distinctly subdued. After a contractually-obliged encore of ‘Chinese Way’, Mark King returned to the stage alone. ‘You ‘ad a good night?’ he bawled. The audience erupted. ‘Well, you can all go and f**k off home then’, deadpanned the thunder-thumbed one. Reply – and further encore – came there none…

Bubbling under:

Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band @ Town & Country Club, November 1989

Will Downing @ Hammersmith Odeon, 20th November 1988

Coltrane Legacy (Alice/Ravi Coltrane, Reggie Workman, Rashid Ali) @ Logan Hall, 10th July 1987

Ry Cooder @ Hammersmith Odeon, 27th May 1982

Bill Frisell @ Town & Country Club, 24th April 1989

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time @ Town & Country Club, 28th August 1988

Check out the first selection of memorable gigs here.

Were you at any of these concerts? Let me know your memories.

David Sanborn: A Change Of Heart 30 Years On

Warner Bros Records, released March 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

4/10

On 17th July 1986, Tampa-born sax great David Sanborn broke off from his own European tour to guest with Miles Davis and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival, playing on ‘Burn’, ‘Jean-Pierre’ and also ‘Portia’, one of the standout Marcus Miller compositions from the soon-to-be-released Tutu.

Though obviously nervous, Sanborn acquitted himself well, getting stuck in with some tasty modal solos and prompting many Miles smiles. Hopefully the performance would bode well for Sanborn’s next studio recording.

Unfortunately not. Sanborn made some fine albums during the 1980s – Hideaway, Voyeur, As We Speak, Straight To The Heart – but A Change Of Heart was not one of them. It was the kind of over-produced, under-composed, unfunky ‘fusion’ record that Tutu should have killed off once and for all.

I bought it on cassette when it came out, proudly showing it off to a cool family friend who had previously introduced me to loads of great music. I hoped he would be impressed by my purchase. He turned his nose up, mumbling something about ‘Bloody muzak…’ Harsh but fair, at least when it comes to most of A Change Of Heart.

The opening two Marcus-written-and-produced tracks – ‘Chicago Song’ and ‘Imogene’ – deliver a quality that the rest of the album never even remotely comes near. Miller was in constant demand around this time and presumably couldn’t commit to the whole album.

‘Imogene’ is a classic ballad with a haunting fretless bass melody and beguiling bridge, while ‘Chicago Song’ transcends its simple melody with an irresistibly funky rhythm section and biting Hiram Bullock guitar bridge. It’s still part of Sanborn’s live set to this day.

The rest of A Change Of Heart seems designed for the latest Don Simpson movie or an episode of ‘Miami Vice’. Syndrum overdubs and unsubtle Fairlight samples prevail alongside ugly synth sounds and flimsy melodic motifs, without a whiff of jazz or R’n’B. Producer/synth players/writers Ronnie Foster, Philippe Saisse and Michael Colina toil away fruitlessly and even Sanborn’s licks don’t stick.

Sanborn toured A Change Of Heart extensively with a great band featuring Bullock and Dennis Chambers on drums, even popping up on primetime UK music show ‘The Tube’ playing Michael Sembello’s smooth jazz ballad ‘The Dream’. He was clearly at his commercial peak (the album made the top 100 in the US and UK) but the creative rot would prevail to the end of the ’80s. He got back on track with the release of 1991’s Another Hand.

Hiram Bullock’s From All Sides: 30 Years Old Today

hiramAtlantic Records, released 18th November 1986

7/10

Bought: Record & Tape Exchange, Shepherd’s Bush, 1990?

In the mid-’80s, London seemed to be Hiram Bullock’s second home. The late great New York-based guitarist was in David Sanborn’s band at the Wembley Arena in November ’84 (alongside Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick and Steve Gadd, one of my first ever gigs) and also appeared in town regularly with Carla Bley and Gil Evans during this period.

At a Sanborn Hammersmith Odeon gig around ’86/’87, Hiram embarked on a solo, and, with the aid of a wireless unit, promptly jumped off the stage to serenade the stalls. He then vacated the auditorium, soloing all the while, and a few minutes later appeared in the front row of the balcony, still blazing away, illuminated by a single spot. What a dude.

Such shenanigans would earn himself column inches in the jazz magazines and a cult following but sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the great guitarists of the ’80s or any other decade, effortlessly mixing up the blues, funk, bebop and rock.

By mid-1986, he had enjoyed ten years as a first-call session player (Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Brecker Brothers et al) as well as being part of the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Late Night With Letterman’ bands. He had also recently hooked up with his one-time bass student Jaco Pastorius in the PDB trio (with drummer Kenwood Dennard) and produced Mike Stern’s excellent Upside Downside (guitar-wise, they have a lot in common).

In short, he had paid his dues. It was time for a solo album. Though From All Sides is in many ways a classic ‘journeyman’ record, covering all the bases from funky fusion (‘Window Shoppin’, ‘Cactus’) through R’n’B (‘Funky Broadway’) to smooth Sinatra-influenced balladry (‘Really Wish I Could Love You’), it’s never boring, helped also by some good guest spots – Kenny Kirkland supplies a classy solo to ‘Window Shoppin’ while Sanborn lights up ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’. On the witty ‘state of the world’ blues ‘Mad Dog Daze’, Bullock even comes over a bit like a Johnny Guitar Watson for the ’80s.

The album also benefits greatly from mostly sticking to the same excellent rhythm section – Charley Drayton on drums, Will Lee on bass, Clifford Carter on keys – which gives some consistency from tune to tune. Hiram plays some brilliant solos, even on somewhat cheesy material such as ‘When The Passion Is Played’ and ‘Until I Do’. The production is state-of-the-art for ’86, ie. extremely high on treble and compression but short on low-end.

But From All Sides is still mostly a blast, driven on by Hiram’s irrepressible energy and good vibes, though the followup Give It What U Got was a big improvement – more on that later.

The Crap Movie Club: One-Trick Pony (1980)

paul simonBy his own admission, Paul Simon had some very lean years between his 1975 classic Still Crazy After All These Years and 1986’s multi-million selling, multi-Grammy-winning Graceland.

His 1983 album Hearts And Bones was a major flop despite featuring some fine songs and great musicianship.

But the real nadir was ‘One-Trick Pony’. I stumbled across it very late at night on British TV in the late ’90s and was instantly gripped. It’s that special kind of crap movie – the ‘rock star’ vanity project with a gallon of overreaching ambition.

To say it hasn’t aged well would be a huge understatement, though, as with most genuinely bad films, it features a myriad of guilty pleasures too…

In 1980, Simon clearly wanted to celebrate his new Warner Bros record contract with a bang (he’d just jumped ship from CBS) but who persuaded him that a self-written, autobiographical movie was the answer? His screen persona was hitherto based pretty much on one (admittedly superb) cameo in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’.

But in ‘One-Trick Pony’ he tried to carry an entire movie with just two default settings: he’s either bopping around the stage, sweaty and somewhat bug-eyed, trying desperately to ‘rock’ (in Joe Queenan’s memorably cruel words, Simon is ‘too short to rock’n’roll, too young to die’), or he’s sulky and morose, peering doe-eyed into the middle distance, desperately trying to be adorable.

Simon plays Jonah Levin, a once-popular folk-rock artist who has fallen on hard times (see what he did there?) and now reduced to hawking his band (Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Richard Tee and Eric Gale) around the Midwest, supporting bands like the B-52’s (who are held up as an example of the ‘hideous’ way the recording industry is going, but whose schtick is so much more vital and life-affirming than Simon’s supposedly ‘raw’ music…).

Jonah’s relationship with his estranged wife – Blair Brown in a completely thankless role – is terminally dull, with undramatic longueurs and clunking one-liners. There’s also some excruciating stuff with Jonah’s ‘cute’ son. You know the kind of thing – lots of ‘whatever happens, Daddy loves you, OK?’, cloying shenanigans with baseball mitts and copying Daddy shaving at the mirror.

From a muso perspective, you might well ask how a movie so heavily featuring superstar players such as Gadd, Gale, Tee and Levin can be outright crap. Well, the novelty effect lasts a few minutes but after that you can only feel for these gents – they’re given pretty thankless roles, playing a fairly tasteless ‘dead pop stars’ quiz in the car, reading out gig reviews and endlessly checking into dodgy hotels. Poor Richard Tee and Eric Gale look the most uncomfortable.

Jonah’s dealings with the record-biz ‘suits’ in ‘One-Trick Pony’ are presumably based on Simon’s disagreements with his previous employers CBS Records, and they produce the only enjoyable sections of the film.

Rip Torn is reliably gruff though resolutely uncomical in his impersonation of legendary CBS hatchet man Walter Yetnikoff, but Lou Reed clearly relishes his cameo as a jobsworth producer; he’s desperate to add strings, horns and backing vocals to Jonah’s stripped-down tracks. Cue a lingering close-up of David Sanborn letting rip on alto, though we’re never sure if this is meant to be a Bad Thing or even a joke – to this viewer, it seemed like the first bit of decent music in the movie.

Oh yeah, the music. The soundtrack of course did a hell of a lot better than the movie – great single ‘Late In The Evening’ featured a Steve Gadd groove almost as influential as ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ and even made the top 10 in the States.

To be fair to Simon, he had sorted out his screen persona by the time of the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video in 1986, settling on a kind of faux-naif ‘everyman’ figure with some aplomb. He was also pretty funny in Steve Martin’s ‘Homage To Steve’ short from the same year. But let’s just rejoice that he hasn’t returned to the world of feature films since (or has he? Ed).