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Hal Willner's Rock 'n' Rota

Ludovico Granvassu By

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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...

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