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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.

AAJ: When Amarcord Nino Rota was released you expressed the hope to publish a second volume dedicated to Rota's work for other film directors. At Lincoln Center you'll play music from Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather. Is this a sign that a second Nino Rota album may actually be in the making?

HW: Believe it or not, I recorded the music from Godfather in 1984 with Steve Lacy, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian but at the time I couldn't figure out how to finish it. So that was left by the side. Now that the opportunity to play this concert came out I started developing that again. I don't know if it'll be a record. I don't plan like that. For the Lincoln Center concert we did approach a few scores which were not written for Fellini movies.

AAJ: Amarcord Nino Rota set the tone for your following tribute albums. One of the constant features of these projects was the amount of talent you were able to muster. On this album you had heavy-weights like Jaki Byard, Henry Threadgill, Steve Lacy, Muhal Richard Abrams... but also unexpected names like Debbie Harry of Blondie... Quite a feat for a 24 year old producer!

HW: Jaki Byard's was my very first recording session as a solo producer. We did it at RCA Studios, a huge room. Jacki worked out both pieces ["Amarcord" and "La Strada"] in two takes and that was it. We had a very low budget, so we had to work fast, except maybe for the Debbie Harry/Chris Stein track ["Valzer (Parlami di Me)"]. For the "Medley: The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, Il Bidone, The Nights of Cabiria"], which revolved pretty much around George Adams and Ron Carter, arranger Bill Fisher wanted to hire these young kids that had just come from New Orleans. It turned out that they were Branford Marsalis and Wynton Marsalis. It was one of their very first recordings for them. They had not yet signed for Columbia at the time.

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. For a while, I got all about spiritual jazz and jazz history. In the early 80s, I was starting to get away from it to get back to my roots. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry expressed an interest in Nino Rota. I put together that session right before I finished the record, which was just a few months before its release. That session set up a whole other world for me. In a certain commercial sense, if I had repeated that same formula over and over again I could have set up a successful Windham Hill kind of label. But I was restless and I slowly went back to rock. As you can hear on the tributes to Monk and Kurt Weill half of them are not played jazz musicians. But I never abandoned jazz. I still produce jazz albums.

That was an interesting time because jazz wasn't the most respectable music in the world. It was before jazz got back to traditional values or started receiving corporate funding or being taught in schools...

AAJ: Amarcord Nino Rota—just like the other tribute albums you've produced—achieves a perfect balance between paying homage to the spirit of its dedicatee and offering a different perspective on his work. As a producer, how do you manage that?

HW: I invited musicians that were brilliant interpretative artists, and I told them to be themselves. I asked them to interpret a melody, or a series of melodies, because something in those compositions reminded me of their own work and therefore I felt that they could do something beautiful with them. After all, the melodies are the melodies... We knew we couldn't capture the "time capsule feeling" so it made sense to approach the music openly.

Jaki Byard and Muhal Richard Abrams didn't quite get why I had called them, but they did fall in love with those Nino Rota compositions. The melodies are fantastic! Of course, people like Steve Lacy or David Amram took more liberties... but I expected them to.

AAJ: The matching of musicians that may appear to have little in common—say Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins or Todd Rundgren and Gary Windo—is another characteristic of your projects. What makes you think about unprecedented collaborations like those?

HW: I'm not going to lie and say that I sit down and work out everything ahead of time. Some collaborations are thought out, some evolve, and some just happen spontaneously because while I'm working on a project I just happen to run into people and the instinct tells me that they'd be right. Usually I put down some foundations—like the idea of having Carla Bley play "8 1/2" for Amarcord Nino Rota or having Donald Fagen and Joe Jackson on the tribute to Monk. Then I start experimenting from there. The Disney album may have been the most out-there project, because I put all my obsessions on one record. It had Ken Nordine and Betty Carter together with Ringo Starr and Yma Sumac! That's probably the craziest cast I ever assembled, but it worked for that type of music.

AAJ: Speaking of Carla Bley, she played a central role in the success of Amarcord Nino Rota, at a particularly creative phase of her career...

HW: That was a few years after she recorded Escalator Over the Hill [1971] and European Tour 1977. She was IT for me. I just knew she had to do "8 1/2." When I started raising money for the project I claimed I had her before I had her. And then she actually took the gig! This is how we became friends and I involved her on the other projects. She was part of a team I had at the time... but then it got harder and harder to keep it together because I had to change record company after the Kurt Weill tribute came out. The sales of that record where OK but they didn't give me the foundations to continue with the same cast.

AAJ: In the case of Bill Frisell, on the other hand, you bet on a musician that had not yet established himself as the leading guitarist of his generation...

HW: I had not yet recorded some Nino Rota melodies which I really wanted to have on the album. I really needed them and I had no budget left. I asked D. Sharpe, the drummer, if he knew of any solo guitarists. He said that there was a guy who just graduated from Berklee and was destined to be a great, Bill Frisell. He had just moved to New York. So I went with that and sent Frisell a tape. Years later, Bill told me that before the recording session he rehearsed his piece ["Juliet of the Spirits"] for months. That is an amazing thing, and gives that tune a very special feel.

AAJ: How did you approach the recording sessions? What were you trying to achieve?

HW: A lot of people will tell you that at the time I was a beginner. I didn't know all that I was doing as a sole producer. It's a record which was completely made by instinct, not experience. There's something to be said for that. There are more mistakes on that record than on my following albums, but there was something about it that I could never capture again once I better understood what I was doing...

It's hard to say what I initially wanted my tribute albums to be like. Some people understood them for what they were, but for other people it was hard to go through multi-artists albums like those and accept them as a cohesive piece of work, like you would with a movie... I was influenced by several things. The Beatles' White Album came out when I was in high school. To my ears that sounded like a "variety show on record." There were various other records that were important to me, like Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain or the Rolling Stone's Let It Bleed. Variety shows on television where another big influence. At that time comedy and music were brothers in arms. Comedians and musicians often worked together. You had acts like Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and counterculture artists like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. When I started working in the music business it seemed like that kind of thing had gone away. My attempt was to make records like those, a cohesive "variety-show-turned-audio-book, for which I needed to involve all kinds of artists, and record them and mix them with the same engineer.

AAJ: In many respects, this was a revolutionary album. How long did it take you to complete it and to find a label for it?

HW: It took almost a year to go from the first recording until all the tracks were completed. I had to find a record company so I could get the funds to finish it. It's hard to imagine now, but at that time there weren't tribute records like that. There had been a few but they had not received any kind of attention. So it was a very hard record to place. Luckily, I met Joe Boyd, who ran Hannibal Records, which financed the project and made it possible to complete it.

AAJ: Having established your reputation with Amarcord you went on to a number of other ambitious tribute projects. How were the post-Amarcord years?

HW: After the Nino Rota project I tried to go out and get a job like a normal producer of artists. But people just wanted to hire you based on what you had done before. So I was asked what other ideas I had, and I didn't really have any for some time.... Then one day I went to a concert to honor Thelonious Monk who had recently passed away. Oscar Peterson was on stage. I didn't quite understand why they had invited him, since he had not been very kind to Monk's music before. I also started wondering why other kinds of musicians, bands like NRBQ or people like Donald Fagen, were not invited to perform, because Monk's songs are almost like pop songs. I saw Monk's influence reaching into rock and roll and wondered why not incorporate that in a Monk tribute concert, why not invite other artists, besides jazz artists like Barry Harris and so forth? So that's where that idea for the next project [That's the Way I Feel Now—A Tribute to Thelonious Monk] came from.

This thing called "tribute records" had started around the time that my album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill came out [1985]. All of the sudden all these tribute records, originally a lot of them published to benefit charities, started being released. Those were albums which featured a number of artists each doing tracks on their own. The people that produced the tributes to Neil Young [The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989, Caroline Records], which featured only alternative bands, and Cole Porter [Red Hot + Blue, 1990, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab], which only featured very famous musicians, understood that if you didn't make them eclectic like mine they would have a better chance for commercial success. They didn't have Elvin Jones on the same record with Shockabilly [like on That's the Way I Feel Now—A Tribute to Thelonious Monk].

Another very important thing for me was to involve artists that were not known worldwide. My projects involved people like Bill Frisell and John Zorn or Chris Spedding which at the time were not household names. I wanted them to balance out the more famous names. Sometimes you get the best tracks from artists like those. They often come up with something you didn't expect.

After a while I wanted to do something that might be more fun. So in 1988 I did the Disney tribute record [Stay Awake—Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films—A&M] and a few years later the Mingus project [Weird Nightmare—Meditations on Mingus, 1992, Columbia]. By that point the "tribute record frenzy" had gotten so out of control... they were making tribute records about everyone! I was literally competing for artists, which was weird... So I thought that it was time to move on. After that, all the multi-artist projects I've been involved with were projects I was invited to do.

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