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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...

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