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Hal Willner's Rock 'n' Rota

Hal Willner's Rock 'n' Rota
Ludovico Granvassu By

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In essence I was a rock 'n' roll kid. Around the time that rock radio got a little weird, which eventually spawned punk music, someone took me to see a concert featuring Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders. That changed everything.
"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Anyone who has ever been at an all-star event—especially if that was a tribute concert—has learned the importance of Aristotle's maxim the hard way. Maybe the occasion was momentous, the cast probably star-studded, the heart certainly in the right place and the expectations high... however, at the end of the performance, all that was left were the glitter and the glory while the emotions were M.I.A. and the musical highlights for posterity nowhere in sight.

Creating an organic whole out of an eclectic mix takes a special talent. Matching gifted artists with strong personalities while encouraging them to explore beyond their comfort zones requires a clear vision and a capacity to bond, relate and persuade. Over the past four decades, producer Hal Willner has proven to have these skills in abundance. What is perhaps most remarkable is that all of this was already on full display when, at the age of 24, he released Amarcord Nino Rota, the stunning tribute to the composer who scored the movies of Federico Fellini and many other directors—from Francis Ford Coppola to Luchino Visconti.

That album—which sounds as fresh today as when it was first released 37 years ago—set the tone for his future tribute projects which focused on the music of Thelonious Monk, vintage Disney movies, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, Harry Smith, Randy Newman, Bill Withers, Doc Pomus, and Lou Reed, to name just a few. The accomplisments of his early homages spawned what would become a real craze for tribute albums by record labels that were ready to jump on the bandwagon of the celebrity-celebration while missing countless artistic opportunities, never achieving wholes greater than their parts like Willner did every time he let the imagination of his ambitious inner child roam wild.

As Amarcord Nino Rota is about to be performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, together with other Nino Rota works, we reached out to Hal Willner to take a look back at that seminal album, which has just been remastered and re-released with a gorgeous packaging by the Chicago- based art records label Corbett vs. Dempsey.

To listen to music from "Amarcord Nino Rota," as well as to excerpts of this interview, play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz.

All About Jazz: Let's start from your admiration for the movies of Federico Fellini and the soundtracks of Nino Rota. What was that, already as a teen-ager, struck you about them, and about Rota in particular?

Hal Willner: In high school I hung out with people that were into outrageous music and films. A dear friend took me to see a double feature of Federico Fellini's Satyricon and The Clowns. I sat through it twice. It was a perfect avant-garde movie for that time. I then acquired the soundtrack album of Satyricon, which was full of field music but also featured the beautiful melody of "Gitone's Theme," which is the main theme of the film.

Then, obviously, I started seeing other Fellini films, like La Strada, Juliet of the Spirits, 8 1/2, etc., and I became a real fan. "Amarcord" premiered around the time I moved to New York and everybody in my crowd, both in school and at the recording studio where I worked, was a huge Fellini fan, including my friend Joel Dorn, the producer. I remember that once he based the track for a record he was producing on the funeral scene from Amarcord.

I collected all the Nino Rota soundtrack records. They are amazing. You put them on and they change the whole environment of the room. They have a magic that captures their time and place. When I went to Rome the first time it was exactly like that. The soundtrack must have sounded incredible at the time those movies were made. They included both original themes as well as melodies that were borrowed from songs like "Stormy Weather" and "La Cucaracha" and all that stuff...

AAJ: Music composed to accompany a movie does not always survive without images. What makes the soundtracks of Nino Rota stand alone so well?

HW: Obviously these soundtracks don't score to action. They create the framework and the atmosphere for what's going on, be it the mysteriousness of Juliet of the Spirits or the circus atmosphere of The Clowns, the beauty of La Strada and "I Vitelloni." They captured the sounds of what one would think of as Italian, yet with clear American influences, since American films were very popular in Italy when Nino Rota was active.

I do have a big interest in soundtrack records. Strangely enough, shortly after I started recording Amarcord Nino Rota I had gotten a job at Saturday Night Live, which required me to put soundtrack music to their sketches. I still do that. So I acquired a quite large collection of soundtrack records which I used to listen to as "real records." There was a golden age for soundtrack music before then. Those years marked the end of the close artistic relationship that film directors and composers used to have. Afterwards, films started being scored—and now are almost exclusively scored—with songs that people already know...

AAJ: As you recall in the liner notes to Amarcord Nino Rota, the "project evolved over a period of four years, from a failed attempt to record a very talented saxophonist (who shall remain nameless) performing "O Venise, Venaga, Venusia" from Fellini's "Casanova." What happened? And what followed that failed attempt?

HW: Now I can tell that I tried to involve John Gilmore, but Sun Ra, who watched over all his players very closely, didn't like the idea. Then Nino Rota died. At the time, I was going out all the time, checking out lots of musicians. I was seeing Jacki Byard a lot. I would go see George Adams play... One day, I thought "Wow! Just imagine Carla Bley doing "8 1/2"!." So that's where the idea of the project came from. All of a sudden I heard it as a multi-artist view of the work of Nino Rota, even though my very initial idea was to have a single artist working on Rota's music, to create something like those Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' records, Sketches of Spain or Porgy and Bess.

AAJ: At some point you actually went to Rome to meet Mr. Fellini. How did that encounter go?

HW: I found Fellini's postal address and I sent him a letter. Out of legal concerns, it was registered mail that he would need to sign to receive, and the letter described the project, so he could not say that he didn't know about it. What I didn't expect was that he wrote me back and told me he was excited about the idea. He gave me his phone number to call him if I was overseas. So I made a point to go overseas, which I needed to do to record Steve Lacy for Amarcord Nino Rota. I was 24 years old. He was very nice but for me it was like meeting Charles Dickens! I could hardly speak... While I'm sitting in his office I noticed these Laurel and Hardy books. I'm a huge Laurel and Hardy fan. I started imitating Stan Laurel and Fellini started doing his own impersonation of Stan Laurel. We bonded over that.

He did not have audio equipment in his office because he said that he never listened to music which didn't relate to something he was working on. I had to give him a Walkman with headphones, which had just come out. I'm not 100 percent sure that he understood all the interpretations of Nino Rota's music we had done, but everything went fine. He took me out to lunch with some actresses and drove me around Rome. Then he left me in the middle of nowhere and said "I leave you to your destiny!"

When the album came out I brought it to him. One of my dreams was to see him direct. Somehow I managed to find myself on the set and watched him work for two days. When I handed him the record, I noticed that he had a weird expression, even though he remained very kind. What had happened is that Joe Boyd, the producer of Hannibal Records, had chosen a photo of the actress Sandra Milo for the cover of the album. I did not know that she had recently published a "tell-all" book about Fellini [Caro Federico—Italian for Dear Federico] so he must have reacted to photo on the cover, but he was very nice about the whole thing and remained very supportive. I was a kid that didn't speak Italian and was in awe of him. After that I saw him a couple more times.
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