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Hal Willner, Ex Eye, Bill Laswell, Zion 80 & Brandon Seabrook

Hal Willner, Ex Eye, Bill Laswell, Zion 80 & Brandon Seabrook
Martin Longley By

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Hal Willner
The Stone
June 14, 15, 17, 2016

Hal Willner spent six nights in residence at The Stone, presenting two sets each evening. This Philadelphian producer has immaculate taste, as illustrated by his greatest achievements: a series of conceptual albums that feature a host of carefully selected artists, assigned with the task of addressing the music of a chosen composing giant. There was That's The Way I Feel Now (Thelonious Monk), Lost In The Stars (Kurt Weill), Weird Nightmare (Charles Mingus), and his first homage, in 1981, to Nino Rota, the Italian composer known for his Federico Fellini movie soundtracks. This last was revisited on the opening night of the Stone residency.

With many of the players on the original album now deceased, or otherwise unavailable, Willner assembled a starry creaming of today's hot NYC players, with fresh charts penned, but the original spirit observed. Steven Bernstein acted as musical director for most of the week, and had written a new arrangement for "Amacord." A soft-circus lope featured some sprightly awakenings, as the tune developed a bouncing New Orleans gait, with spirited solos from Brian Drye (trombone), Doug Wieselman (clarinet) and Curtis Fowlkes (further 'bone). A ska-gypsy feel developed, with another Wieselman solo, a conclusion reached via a sensitive Lenny Pickett tenor saxophone statement. Guitarist Giancarlo Vulcano provided arrangements of two pieces from Casanova, and then Rota's theme from The Godfather was the odd Francis Ford Coppola tune out, with Karen Mantler providing the arrangement. She also contributed some spine-tingling harmonica, impersonating an accordion, and sending visible waves of both adoring recognition and deep appreciation throughout this full-up Stoner crowd. Across gentle piano, soft bass and percussion, Fowlkes delineated the main theme, and smiles beamed around the audience, and around the ensemble too, Mantler's organ swelling up to a low Marcus Rojas tuba note, to conclude. It was uphill to the end, from that point, with distinctive readings of "La Dolce Vita," "Roma," and "8 1/2," Mantler representing her mother Carla Bley on this one, who had dug out her arrangement from the original album. The cocked hat swagger of "La Strada" was a fine way to finish, a jolly jape, with prominent xylophone chimes to assist its romping. Rota's music was perfectly interpreted, very much in the spirit of the originals, but with burnished details provided via the fresh arrangements and the wonderful ensemble's individualist expression, not to mention a pervading sense of good humour, led by Willner and Bernstein.

The next night saw a very different project, presenting beatnik classics Word Jazz (Ken Nordine, 1957) and How To Speak Hip (Del Close & John Brent, 1959). Very much of their time, we could laugh at, and with, these zany observations of original hipster-speak. Reader Willner was joined by Adam McKay, Steve Higgins, and in an unusual stand-up role, Laurie Anderson (although she was actually sitting down, and also playing the violin). In-between the wordy pieces, there were several fleeting instrumental themes, creating a fast-moving revue feel. Steven Bernstein was directing again, and the pianist of the evening was Terry Adams, of NRBQ fame. Willner described this first set as being a 'reading,' with the second set intended as a 'run-through,' and "the real show will never happen." he laughed. In reality, though, this first performance sounded very much like a full-quality finished entity. Bernstein was, unusually, on flugelhorn, and Willner read "What Time Is It?," followed by Anderson intoning whilst munching on potato chips, with extreme amplification. She's 'hungry in the middle of the night,' moving onto olives and crackers, insatiably nibbling. McKay and Higgins prompted guffaws from both audience and colleagues, the humour in Hip still vibrant nearly 60 years down the line. Willner did a duo skit with Adams, and this triumphant set closed out with further chortles, as "The Loose Wig" and The Vidiot" were exhumed, one from each of the selected vinyl originals.

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