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)

Thelonious Monk: That’s The Way I Feel Now

Most jazz players don’t really seem to ‘get’ the music of Thelonious Monk. Decent cover versions are hard to come by, of course with some notable exceptions (Steve Khan, Kenny Kirkland, Lynne Arriale, Paul Motian and probably a few more).

During the centenary of the genius’s birth, it seems as good a time as any to revisit a classic 1980s Thelonious tribute album which puts his miraculous compositions front and centre (plus the fact that I’ve just acquired a brilliant new cassette player* which is bringing it to life again after years stuck in the proverbial drawer).

That’s The Way I Feel Now was masterminded by producer/curator Hal Willner and inspired by bad Monk cover versions. Willner told writer Howard Mandel: ‘I was sitting at Carnegie Hall at some jazz memorial to Monk, getting freaked out that all these other people who really had a love of Monk weren’t performing. Monk’s music was never boring.’

So, at New York’s Mediasound Studios in early 1984, he set about assembling an extraordinary cast of fans including Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Carla Bley, Peter Frampton, John Zorn, Was (Not Was), Dr John, Gil Evans, Bobby McFerrin, John Scofield and Elvin Jones to celebrate Monk. (Willner has gathered similarly eclectic casts for albums celebrating Mingus, Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and the music of Walt Disney films, as well as producing records by Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful and movie soundtracks including ‘Short Cuts’.)

Listened to in one sitting, That’s The Way I Feel Now still makes for a gloriously psychedelic celebration of Monk’s ouevre. Over 22 tracks, I can only make out three duds. It’s also a triumph of sequencing, holding the attention with ease by unashamedly juggling the rock, jazz and avant-garde.

First, the ‘rock’: Rundgren’s take on ‘Four In One’ is a gloriously anarchic, Gary Windo’s sax blaring out over a cacophony of samples, cheap drum machines and amateurish keyboards. Was (Not Was)’s take on ‘Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’ features a knockout multi-tracked guest spot from vocalist Sheila Jordan, while Donald Fagen and Steve Khan mesh perfectly on beautiful ballad ‘Reflections’. NRBQ’s take on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ comes near to perfection, as does Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton’s surf-rock-tinged ‘Work’ featuring a classic Marcus Miller bass performance. Only Joe Jackson didn’t get the memo, delivering an overly-lush – though obviously heartfelt – ‘Round Midnight’.

Then there’s the ‘jazz’: John Zorn lays down an outrageous ‘Shuffle Boil’ featuring babbling vocals, bubble-blowing, chainsaw guitar, Bontempi organ and hilariously remedial drumming; Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy deliver a memorable ‘Evidence’; Randy Weston, Dr John and Barry Harris’s contributions are solo piano masterworks; John Scofield and Mark Bingham smash ‘Brilliant Corners’ out of the park, as do vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough on ‘Friday The 13th’. Finally, Carla Bley’s ‘Misterioso’ is possibly the album standout, an affecting symphony for Monk featuring electrifying performances from Kenny Kirkland on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Hiram Bullock on guitar.

The Rundgren tune aside, to my ears That’s The Way I Feel Now could have been recorded yesterday. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy these days. So I’m bloody glad I held onto my ancient cassette version. Here’s hoping for a CD/download re-release soon.

*a Denon DRR 6.5, if you’re interested…

 

Steve Khan’s Backlog: Interview & Album Review

backlog_esccov_hires600Steve Khan, one of jazz’s most underrated and distinctive guitarists, made two fine fusion albums during the 1980s: Eyewitness and Casa Loco.

His unique chord voicings, intriguing melodic sense and subtle use of effects have also illuminated work by The Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Billy Cobham and Joe Zawinul.

Khan’s other solo albums across a 40-year career showcase his enormous versatility, from overdubbed guitar tributes to Thelonious Monk (Evidence) and jazz trios (Headline, Let’s Call This) to large fusion ensembles featuring the likes of Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn (The Blue Man, Arrows).

Khan has also become well known as a master-interpreter and reharmoniser of non-guitar jazz compositions by the likes of Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan and Randy Brecker. His new collection Backlog, the third in a Latin Jazz triptych following Parting Shot (2011) and Subtext (2014), continues to plunder the songbooks of his favourite composers.

steve_khan

The album kicks off with the killer one-two of Monk’s ‘Criss Cross’ and Greg Osby’s ‘Concepticus In C’. The former is inspired by the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland’s Latin version which first appeared on his fine 1991 debut album.

Says Khan, ‘It’s a wonderful arrangement and so good that it’s hard to escape its influence. It took me years to find a way to do the tune in a way where I could put my own stamp on it. As everyone already knows, I love Monk’s compositions and have recorded many of them. I happen to feel that Monk’s tunes have a way of fitting into a Latin context, as if they were made to be interpreted in that style.’

The Osby tune was played by Khan during their tenure together in the New Sound Collective band; the guitarist clearly relishes arranging his version of ‘Concepticus’ on Backlog, adding a funky Joe Zawinul flavour to the tasty harmonies and quirky rhythmic concept.

‘Latin Genetics’, composed by Ornette Coleman and first appearing on his In All Languages album, features a fine guest spot from Randy Brecker on trumpet. On first listening, it seems a light, almost joyous piece of music, but Khan has a different take on it: ‘It’s funny to me that people see this tune as being so happy – I actually see it as a rather dark piece of music, one with many sinister and even humorous qualities.’

Backlog‘s other Coleman cover version is ‘Invisible‘, featuring Bob Mintzer on sax, originally recorded in 1958: ‘It comes from one of his earliest albums, Something Else!!!!, featuring an acoustic piano,’ says Khan. ‘Every time I hear this tune, I feel that Ornette’s playing and improvisational concepts are a bit constricted by having the chord changes applied so literally. There seems to be an absence of space. So, in my interpretation, though there are chord changes, both Bob and I play pretty much unaccompanied, and that’s really how I like it.’

Elsewhere on Backlog, Khan reimagines the music of Stevie Wonder, his father Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mandel, Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill.

Clearly a labour of love, Khan wonders whether it will be his final album: ‘When I recorded Parting Shot, for reasons of the health and condition of my left hand, I thought that was going to be the final album. Then when I decided that I felt well enough to record Subtext, I was even more certain that that would be the final album. But, as 2015 unfolded, I came to the simple conclusion that I just do not feel alive unless I am creatively involved in the formation of new music. So, while I can still do it, I had to do everything possible to record. Can I foresee ever being able to self-finance another recording of my own again? I don’t want to utter the word “never” in conjunction with such a thought, but honestly, I really don’t know. With the release of any new piece of work, there is always hope for better days and better times, but this remains to be seen…’

Backlog is out now on ESC/Tone Center.

Read the full interview with Steve at his website.

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.