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Willner, Hal

Hal Willner

Producer, music director

Introduced to Jazz and Production

Landed on Saturday Night Live

Woke Up Disneyphiles

Visions of Mingus

Selected discography


Musician located part of producer Hal Winners 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 otherschiefly eccentric modern composersWillner has made an art of allowing art to happen. Although these anthologies come very much from Winners 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-TVs popular Saturday Night Live. As Terry Adamsa player regularly enlisted by the producernoted 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 dont 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 radiowhich was then free of the rigid demographics dictating contemporary formatshe 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 radioa 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. Id rather be bad. I love taking chances, and if you do that, you usually wont fail.

Introduced to Jazz and Production

Willner graduated from high school in 1974 and went on to attend New York University. By age 16, he told

For the Record

Born c. 1948 in Philadelphia, PA; father owned a delicatessen. Education: Attended New York University.

Music producer and film and television music coordinator, 1980. Worked for record distributor, 1970s; music engineer; music coordinator, Saturday Night Live, NBC-TV, 1980; produced album Amarcord Nino Rota, 1981; television work includes My Neighborhood, Night Tracks, Live From Off Center, and Looney Toons 50th Anniversary Special; supervised and/or produced music for films, including Candy Mountain, 1987, and Fried Green Tomatoes, 1992.

Addresses: Record company Columbia Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450; 1801 Century Park West, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Other c/o Saturday Night Live, NBC-TV, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020.

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 Winners 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 Dorns 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 Im definitely more comfortable on the other side of the glass. Id never let myself get skilled in anythingwhen I wasnt playing piano like [virtuoso Vladimir] Horowitz in three weeks I said, Screw this. So Im 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.

Landed on Saturday Night Live

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 Fellinis films. Rotas atmospheric, carnivalesque work provided the perfect aural dimension for Fellinis daring, surrealistic creations, and Willner assembled a cast of musicians to explore that musics outer reaches. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from the new-wave band Blondiewhom Willner had met on Saturday Night Liveana renegade jazz stylist Carla Bley were among the personnel involved.

Next came Thats 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 artistsDonald Fagenson and David Weiss of Was (Not Was), Joe Jackson, Todd Rundgren, Bobby McFerrin, and Peter Framptonwith 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 hes 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, Winners 1985 Weill collection, features such masters of the moody cabaret-pop tradition as Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Sting, and Marianne Faithfull.

Woke Up Disneyphiles

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 OConnor 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 singers 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 Faithful!, 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 its an emotional roller coaster. He continued, elaborating, To make a real representation of where the artist is at the timethe right material, musicians, the best performanceit takes a certain amount of attention. I cant 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 workfurious pastiches of classics, popular tunes, and onomatopoeiaattends 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 Stallings incidental music and edited various pieces of it together to create and sustain moods, feels, ideas. It takes a whileif youre a Looney Tunes fanatic like I amfor the music to detach itself from the cartoon images its always accompanied, but Winners success comes in how he manages to allow it to do just that.

Visions of Mingus

In 1992 Willner produced Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, which appeared on the Columbia label. The Mingus projectanother exercise in Willner castinghad been germinating in the producers mind since 1984; long before deciding on which of the composers 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. Winners manager introduced him to Minguss 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 instrumentsmade of glass bottles, wood, wire, disassembled pump organs, and other found objects and sporting names like marimba eroica and cloud chamber bowlshelped 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 Minguss works.

With Weird Nightmare Willner avoided the pitfalls of the tribute albumwhich had become a much-imitated formby including obscure Mingus pieces, rather than presenting just the greatest hits, and by teaming several of them with spoken-word selections from the composers 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 Prevites jug band. Mingus was a punk classicist, Willner remarked to Down Beat He didnt 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 Burroughss literary career, the HeroesMichael Franti and Rono Tseagreed to work with the celebrated avante-garde novelist after hearing Dead City Radio. A staffer at Island, also the Heroes label, and Burroughss 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 Willners 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, Willners unusual ideas have, in fact, inspired not only a lot of talking, but a lot of doing.

Selected discography

As producer


Amarcord Nino Rota: Interpretations of Nino Rota Music From the Films of Federico Fellini, Hannibal, 1981.

Thats the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, A&M, 1984.

Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, A&M, 1985.

Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music From Vintage Disney Films (includes Someday My Prince Will Come, Cruella DeVille, When You Wish Upon a Star, and Heigh-ho), A&M, 1988.

Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons, 1936-58, Warner Bros., 1990.

Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, Columbia, 1992.


Marianne Faithfull, Strange Weather, Island, 1987.

Allen Ginsburg, The Lion for Real, Island, 1988.

Gavin Friday, Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves, Island, 1989.

Friday, Adam NEve, Island, 1992.

Williams. Burroughs, Dead City Radio, Island, 1990.

David Sanborn, Another Hand, Elektra, 1991.

Burroughs, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, Island, 1993.


Down Beat, April 1990; November 1990; October 1992.

Musician, January 1989; October 1992.

Pulse!, November 1992; July 1993.

Rolling Stone, November 17, 1988.

Spin, February 1993.

Village Voice, October 25, 1988.

Additional information for this profile was provided by Columbia Records, 1992.

Simon Glickman

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