Tuesday, April 07, 2020

RIP Hal Willner

I've always thought John Zorn helped me to discover Thelonious Monk, and it's true to a great extent. But I never would have discovered Monk if Zorn hadn't appeared on That's the Way I Feel Now, a wide-ranging tribute to the great pianist which was assembled by producer Hal Willner. So maybe it's Willner I owe big time.

Hal Willner passed away yesterday at the age of 64. It hasn't been confirmed yet but it appears that he was suffering from symptoms of the coronavirus. Along with Ellis Marsalis, Bill Withers, Mike Longo, Manu Dibango, Wallace Roney and many others, it's almost too much to bear.

But I am here to praise Mr. Willner, not bury him. Around 1983 when I was aspiring to be an alto saxophonist, I discovered John Zorn playing that horn along with an array of duck and bird calls.on the first Golden Palominos album. Suddenly I wanted to hear everything he was doing. That eventually lead me to That's the Way I Feel Now, which featured him playing "Shuffle Boil," a deep Monk cut, of course.

Although I was getting into jazz, having purchased some Coltrane, Miles and even Ornette, I wasn't really up on Monk, aside from the fact that I knew I should be. This album was a perfect primer for me. To present a thumbnail sketch, it went from Monk's close associates like Charlie Rouse and Barry Harris on one end to Zorn and Shockabilly (who totally ripped "Criss Cross" apart) on the other. In between, French hornist Sharon Freeman (and four other people on that same instrument) make "Monk's Mood" sound like what he might have heard as he walked through the Pearly Gates. And no less than Peter Frampton killed on a version of "Work." Rather than list everyone that played on it, click here to check out the whole lineup.

But the music wasn't all that Willner provided. Hoping that his production would motivate listeners to find the original versions of these songs, Willner provided an index on the inner sleeves. One list had a select discography, the other cross-referenced albums and songs. It also included the address for Mosaic Records who had just released their first box set - Monk's complete Blue Note recordings. I know at least one person that took all that information to heart. You're reading his words now.

Who would do all that? (I usually don't ask questions when I'm writing but this situation calls for it.) Someone who really cares about music. Someone who knows music and wants to share it, even when it's delivered with some crazy ideas added to the mix.

The same thing happened when Willner produced Weird Nightmare, a tribute to Charles Mingus in 1992. He even admits in the liner notes that Sue Mingus might have thought he was crazy for this one. This time around, he incorporated instruments built by Harry Partch into the arrangements, which didn't really add anything to the music - aside from intrigue. But even though it wasn't as consistent, it worked because it was a Hal Willner production, and the flops were just as significant as the home runs. Yeah, Keith Richards' swagger in "Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" is embarrassing (he gets the title wrong in the introduction) but the ensemble's swampy version of "Canon" is the epitome of dark pedal point drone in my book. And when Robbie Robertson reads from Beneath the Underdog in the second part of that track, it slays me every time.

My wife had a similar eye-opening experience thanks to Willner. Being a Tom Waits fan, she bought Lost In the Stars (The Music of Kurt Weill). That album introduced her to Marianne Faithful, who appeared on it. She also researched Weill and came across the works of his wife Lotte Lenya. Then she picked up Stay Awake, the Disney tribute album on which Willner got Waits, Ringo Starr, Sun Ra and the Replacements to all interpret songs from Disney movies.

Naturally those accomplishments are just the tip of the iceberg with Hal Willner. He worked on Saturday Night Live. If he hadn't asked Jeff Buckley to perform at a tribute to the singer's estranged father, the world might have never heard of the younger Buckley. As the music director for Night Music, he curated one of the craziest music shows to ever grace the airwaves. If you don't believe me, go to youtube and find Bongwater performing "You Don't Love Me Yet." That performance encapsulated everything that was right about music to me in 1990.

But those tribute albums both shaped me in ways that I almost take for granted now. And the mention of his name brought me and Jennie together years ago.

So, Hal, thanks. Your bold outlook is an inspiration. You can't be replicated but I hope someone listens to the world with the same joie de vivre that you did.

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