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David Sanborn: Night Music and Beyond with Hal Willner

Ludovico Granvassu By

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Hal knew how to take people to some place where they subconsciously wanted to go but had not gone yet. To get there they had to kind of surrender part of their ego and discover what they could do together.
Could you imagine tuning in to national network TV today and finding a 60-minute weekly music show focusing on forward-looking musicians driven by a desire to push the envelope rather than to "entertain?" A music show sponsored by a beer company, on top of that? It's hard to believe today. But for two seasons at the end of the 1980s, Michelob Presents Night Music was that and much more. It was a playground where established names like Sonny Rollins and Leonard Cohen would meet and jump together into uncharted territory, and where it was possible to see and hear an ambassador of the edgy downtown scene like Tim Berne on the same episode as a veteran of the Ray Charles bands like Hank Crawford.

The show was the brainchild of saxophone legend David Sanborn, but soon became the lab through which Hal Willner brought his alchemy into the houses of millions of people. In the process, Nigth Music set a standard for what a TV music show should aspire to be, and managed to create countless pearls of accidental beauty by pushing musicians out of their comfort zones. In this interview David Sanborn talks about working with Willner on Night Music as well as on his album Another Hand.

Click here to read the Hal Willner memorial article.

All About Jazz: Did you meet Hal Willner while working together on Night Music?

David Sanborn: No, I had known Hal for years. I don't remember where we first met. It might have been when I was doing Saturday Night Live in the late seventies. We became friends and saw each other from time to time. We had a lot of musical affinity and shared a lot of the same taste in music.

We always talked about working together. During the first season of Night Music we did not really have a music producer. Musically, those early episodes were put together by Marcus Miller and me, together with the producer John Head.

For one of the last shows of the first season, we brought Hal on board as a music producer. That's the show in which Hal paired Leonard Cohen with Sonny Rollins; that episode also featured Was (Not Was) [Note by the editor: season 1, episode 19 -see video below]. I thought that show was amazing, one of those things that didn't seem like it was going to work on paper, but then it came across beautifully. To this day, it remains as one of my favorite episodes of Night Music. After that I lobbied very hard to get Hal on the second season of the show as the music producer. Hal was already "in house" since at the time he was working with Broadway Video, Lorne Michaels' production company, which was behind both Saturday Night Live and Night Music. Lorne thought it was a good idea and so we started the second season with Hal as the music producer. It was a collaboration, but the process was primarily driven by Hal, and I was more than happy with that.

The shows became strange and wonderful. Sometimes puzzling, sometimes irritating, but always brilliant. As I've said in the past, in a way Hal was like Fellini, who was his hero (click here to read an interview with Hal Willner where he recounts how he met Federico Fellini). They both created these fantastic visions, these worlds that you didn't know could exist. Just strange, beautiful and completely amazing.

AAJ: What was the M.O. that you and Mr. Willner applied in the production of Night Music?

DS: We would talk about what he wanted to do. He had a clear idea of the kinds of people that he wanted to have on the show. In many cases he was friends with them, through other situations he was involved in. We had Sting, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, The Pixies, The Residents, Sonic Youth, Phil Woods and many others. A lot of these shows were "collaboration shows," and Hal was a genius at finding the right material and matching it with the right musicians, so that they could bridge the gap between their seemingly very diverse backgrounds. With hindsight you'd think, "I can't believe that that actually worked!" Like when Hal brought Sonny Rollins and Leonard Cohen together. Both Rollins' and Cohen's performances were enhanced by the other.

Later on, I asked Hal to produce the album that I did when we were still working on Night Music, Another Hand, which remains my favorite record among all the ones that I've done. For that record he brought NRBQ's Terry Adams, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, whom I knew but had never worked with before. He also invited musicians that I hadn't met yet, like Bill Frisell and Joey Baron. It was such an eye-opening experience to work with all these people. It really changed my direction and the way I thought about music, and my approach to music in particular. I think Hal had the ability to show people possibilities in themselves that maybe they hadn't thought of. He expanded people's horizons. He brought people together in a very unique way. He did that with so many artists, Marianne Faithfull, Alan Ginsberg, Lou Reed... And more often than not it was fantastic, and even when it wasn't quite there, it was always interesting and stimulating.

AAJ: How did working with Hal Willner on Another Hand differ from your collaboration for Night Music?

DS: In a few ways Another Hand was a different experience. Since that was my album the most obvious difference was that the focus was on me and my music, whereas on the show we'd have a variety of guests and they were the featured artists. As a consequence, we would have different dynamics and different colors all the time. For my album on the other hand we had a more unified, singular, point of view. Other than that, however, the two experiences had lots of similarities. In particular, there was the same atmosphere around Hal all the time. He brought this kind of dream-like quality, which was certainly the approach that we had thought for the album. When I look back on it, it still feels like a really great dream. To Hal's great credit, he understood things about me that I was not aware of. He opened doors for me, he opened my eyes to things I didn't realize I was capable of. I'm always amazed when I listen back to that record, that there's a coherence and a continuity to it. There was a real narrative at play.

Hal brought that same vibe on the TV show through his role as a producer, and the way he put things together. I remember the episode we did with Sting singing Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" with Bill Frisell and Fareed Haque on guitar, Hank Roberts on cello, Don Alias on percussion.

I played the sopranino. The result was a very ethereal version of that song. It is definitely one of the great memories I have of Night Music.

AAJ: How was he able to convince musicians to get involved with these experiments?

DS: You mean how did he con people into doing these things? [Laughs] Well, Hal was so passionate about things. He believed so deeply in his vision. You could see that, and so he engendered trust. I really can't explain it any better.

To this day I am scratching my head thinking, "How the hell did he talk people into doing that?" I mean we got Al Green to perform on "Space Is the Place" with Sun Ra! How the hell did THAT happen? I don't know! It could only happen through his peculiar kind of magic! Because he knew how to take people to some place where they subconsciously wanted to go but had not gone yet. To get there they had to kind of surrender part of their ego and discover what they could do together. Being out of your comfort zone also implies that you are not going to go for your own old shit. You are not going to go to your default position. You've got to "be a musician!" That challenged you to not go on automatic, to be inspired by different colors, different textures and different personalities. Take again the example of Sting. He was singing "Ain't No Sunshine," not one of his songs. And he was doing it with Bill Frisell casting a spell in his kind of way. Plus Hank Roberts on cello and me on sopranino... That's bound to make something else happen. We were all trying to find a common ground. And in that scenario we were all reminded about a fundamental aspect of music; it's all about connection and universality. That is a subtext of everything that Hal was doing: "Man we're all connected here; there's a universal connection about this thing that we call music!" Maybe it could seem completely eccentric. There'd be someone playing spoons, or maybe he'd have Christian Marclay playing turntables before turntables were a thing. It was always crazy, it seemed not to make any sense, but was always fantastic. It was all about possibility!

AAJ: How did you manage to get that on TV? Obviously the times were quite different...

DS: That's a whole other story onto itself... To give you a bit of context, my manager, Pat Rains, and I were friends with David Saltz, who was a music producer at ABC Sports but had always been interested in producing a music show. He was very close to Michelob, a big sponsor for sport shows, and got them into the idea of sponsoring a music show. David and Pat came to me with an idea to do a music show on TV, and I immediately thought of this TV show that had a big influence on me in the '50s called the "Robert Herridge Theater," which was basically a kind of a fly-on-the-wall situation where Robert Herridge showed a bunch of musicians sitting around in a big studio, hanging out together, jamming and talking to each other... He would cut from a shot of Billie Holiday and Count Basie talking to each other and smoking and drinking to a shot of Gerry Mulligan and Lester Young playing in another part of the room, then he would cut back to Billie Holiday and then back to Lester Young while you could still see the cameraman moving around in the background. I thought this was the coolest thing ever.

We went to speak to Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live. Michelob was thrilled about that. Over time it became less about the Robert Herridge Theater idea and more about making the general idea work in 1980s television. It got all done in-house at Broadway Video, the production company of Lorne Michaels. He brought in John Head as the actual producer. I got together a house band featuring Marcus Miller on bass, Omar Hakim on drums, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Philippe Saisse on keyboards and Don Alias on percussion. I think that Michael Lindsay Hogg was the first director. When we started out it was a little rough at first. Jools Holland was brought in as the co-host on the show for the first season, because Lorne felt that I was not strong enough to carry the show myself, which he was right about. Jools left at the end of the first season to go back to the UK and subsequently started his own music show for the BBC. I then became sole host of Night Music. Things developed out of that. I guess the show was successful enough that Michelob wanted to continue sponsoring the show for a second season, which is when Hal really put his imprint on the show.

All in all, we were trying to do something which could be on commercial television while being also interesting and different. At some point however, and I don't know exactly what happened, the show got canceled. My guess is that Night Music got a little too far out for the sponsor. I remember one of the representatives from Michelob coming to one show in which we had The Residents, Conway Twitty and the Kronos Quartet on it. The Residents sang a very unique version of the Elvis Presley song "I Want to Be Your Teddy Bear" which was actually quite scary. The Michelob reps looked like they had just been hit by a big stick, shocked and stunned, "What is this?" We also had guests like Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Randy Newman and other artists who were great and that Michelob understood, but I think that, overall, the show was less mainstream than what they had in mind. And to their credit, Michelob stayed with us for two full seasons. A month before the third season started, however, I found out that the show had been cancelled. Hal was a huge part of what made the show interesting, but probably, in the end, also part of what helped get the show canceled...

But you know what? In the grand scheme of things, I think what we did had a profound effect on both musicians and music fans, especially the younger audience, who could tune into the show and realize, "Wow, you can really do strange shit," and discover music they weren't necessarily hearing, like, for instance, when they saw The Pixies and all these weird combinations of people we had on the show. I remember once meeting Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who, years later, made a point of saying to me how much of an effect the show had on him. As we get more and more distance from it, my impression is that it was a groundbreaking show, especially when seen in the context of the times in which it was shot. Hal was certainly the catalyst for that, and for the things that made those shows really historic.

AAJ: Is there a special moment or anecdote or event that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Hal Willner?

DS: Without a doubt, the memories associated with the first episode of Night Music that Hal produced, with Leonard Cohen, Sonny Rollins and Was (Not Was). That show to me epitomizes all that was great about Night Music and Hal.

Photo credit: Scott Chernis

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