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Hal Willner's Rock 'n' Rota

Ludovico Granvassu By

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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 Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, 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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