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Andrew White for The New York Times

Paying a musical tribute to a musical legend or somebody who just had their first hit this morning seems to have turned into an industry itself. Tribute albums, songs, easy listening string quartets, lavish concerts, film documentaries, you name it. It all seems neatly compartmentalized – you get a set of star-studded names give them each a song to do, give them a musical genre to deal with, or you collect a bunch of names (known and unknown) and let them do anything they want. Turn on your recording and filming equipment, studio live, whatever, and you’re off.

Most of what we get is a hit and miss affair, and it doesn’t make any difference who did it out of love and who did it for the money, you never get a well rounded musical experience that moves along as that old-fashioned kaleidoscope.

Hal Willner and The True Art of a Musical Tribute | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Well, not really. Actually, we get that from a single mind that actually kicked the whole musical tribute concept into fifth gear – Hal Willner, the 62-year old producer/arranger/composer/event manager. Now, Willner did not invent the tribute concept, but Amarcord Nino Rota, from 1981, the first tribute album he conceived and produced practically started the musical tribute process.

Yes, You Did Encounter Hal Willner At Some Point

The input Willner has on the trends in modern music, and even further in the modern art might not seem so visible, but it’s certainly there. You’ve had to encounter him at some point when he started his career in the early ’70s moving from Philadelphia to New York. Whether it was just a casual encounter on the streets of NYC while he was helping jazz legend Rhasaan Roland Kirk found the city as part of his apprenticeship with another jazz legend, producer Joel Dorn, or one of his landmark tribute albums (that didn’t really sell), or his obscure solo album, Whoops, I’m An Indian (1998), or his production jobs for almost everybody from jazz easy listening king David Sandborn (his only album that isn’t jazz easy listening) to Lou Reed, to spoken word albums by William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Edgar Alan Poe.

…if you still think you have not encountered Hal Willner and have watched at least one episode of Saturday Night Live, actually you did.

Oh, then there are the live tribute musical productions from Tim Buckley and Randy Newman to Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen.  Then there are the soundtracks for Robert Altman’s movies (Short Cuts, Kansas City), Wim Wenders (The Million Dollar Hotel), Gus Van Sant (Finding Forester) and Martin Scorsese (The Gangs Of New York). And if you still think you have not encountered Hal Willner and have watched at least one episode of Saturday Night Live, actually you did. Willner was the music producer for the show’s skits for decades.

From Avant-Garde to Mainstream – And Back

In an interview for “The New York Times” in 2017 Willner said that according to his theory, “the avant-garde or the weird were once mainstream” and “weird isn’t in right now.” Obviously, Willner is constantly trying to put things straight and make avant-garde mainstream. He keeps on bringing it to the forefront, the mainstream dilutes it, and he starts all over again with equal fervor.

Taking up the concept of jazz musicians making tributes to other jazz artists (something he probably came up with while he was an NYC cab driver) and getting the thumbs up from Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, who participated in the project themselves, Willner was able to muster the funds for his Nino Rota project. He did have to seek Federico Fellini’s permission for the project though.

As he told the “NYT”, he traveled to Rome and actually knocked on Fellini’s door. Noticing Laurel and Hardy books throughout the apartment, as a big fan of the comedy duo himself, Willner found a common bond with Fellini as they started doing Laurel and Hardy skits together. Fellini took him to lunch, along with two gorgeous actresses, drove him around to show him Rome, just to suddenly drop him in unknown quarters, telling him: “I leave you to your destiny.”

…Willner is constantly trying to put things straight and make avant-garde mainstream. He keeps on bringing it to the forefront, the mainstream dilutes it, and he starts all over again with equal fervor.

And destiny did take its course. The project included mostly jazz musicians like Carla Bley and youthful Wynton Marsalis, but the Debbie Harry/Chris Stein appearance was the springboard for the potent mix Willner was able to come up with for his following tribute projects. The idea was not to make a disparate mixture of artists covering a particular song each but mixing the musical persons, styles and genres into one whole musical vision.

The idea started developing slowly with his Thelonious Monk tribute, That’s The Way I Feel Now in 1984 (from ‘real’ avant-garde of John Zorn to pop stars like Peter Frampton), continuing with Lost In The Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill in 1985 (again, from John Coltrane collaborator Charlie Haden through Lou Reed to Sting).


The Disney project is significant because it often had to rely only on musical snippets that had to be developed into full songs…


The pinnacle of his tribute album projects and the concept he applied came with the two that followed – Stay Awake: Various Interpretations from Vintage Disney Films in 1987 (from Los Lobos and Tom Waits to Sun Ra and Ringo Starr) and Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus from 1992 (from Leonard Cohen, Keith Richards and Elvis Costello to Henry Rollins and Chuck D). The Disney project is significant because it often had to rely only on musical snippets that had to be developed into full songs, but also for the full musical integration of artists and genres into a unified musical concept. On the other hand, the Mingus project started integrating spoken word (Mingus’ poems and writings) into something Willner would continue developing in his own spoken word project, which also included Lou Reed’s Edgar Allan Poe Raven project.

Willner was instrumental in developing not only the live performance tributes…but also one ‘strange’ concept that has truly mutated into its own life form – the string quartet (piano, bluegrass, whatever) tributes to singers, bands, and composer.

While the tribute album projects continued (a Canadian, completely different version of the Kurt Weill project, the music of Harold Arlen, the live Harry Smith Anthology of American Music project, and the two sea shanties covers albums with ‘almost everybody’ from Dr John to Bono), his most recent dealings with the music of  T. Rex has yet to see the light of the day. Willner was instrumental in developing not only the live performance tributes, where he also recreated some of his studio tributes, but also one ‘strange’ concept that has truly mutated into its own life form – the string quartet (piano, bluegrass, whatever) tributes to singers, bands, and composer. His initial contribution was a string quartet version of the punk metalists, Tool.

So who knows what new combination and concept Hal Willner has yet to come up with. But one thing is certain,  if you try to put and sort together all the music, films, documentaries, and TV shows that bear Willner’s name on them, you’d probably fill a whole shelf…or two.

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