Olympic music: Willner's testament

It was noon on the day of his latest artistic triumph, and Hal Willner was running late. “Sorry, man,” he said to me as he walked into Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where a dozen musicians were beginning rehearsals for his Neil Young Project, part of the Cultural Olympiad that serves as a running performing-arts sidecar to the Vancouver Olympics. “I knew we were going to do this, and I was into talking, but then I thought, nah, I need another hour of sleep.”

What he was here to talk about was a sprawling tribute to the Canadian rock icon Neil Young, which was to be performed Thursday and Friday night, featuring just about everyone except Neil Young: Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, the singer Emily Haines from Metric, Ron Sexsmith, Colin James, Julie Doiron, members of Broken Social Scene and the usual motley crew of session men, lounge lizards, jazz astronauts and other eccentrics who always fill out one of Willner’s shows.

The 53-year-old Philadelphia native has been doing this sort of thing for close to 30 years. His tribute albums to other woolly geniuses — Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk — are the stuff of legend. He has been the musical director for Saturday Night Live since 1980. He did a Leonard Cohen tribute in 2006 in Brooklyn, with Canadian consulate money, and that led to this, somehow. Anyone who has followed Willner knows it will be incontestably one of the cultural highlights of this Olympic-fevered Vancouver winter.

There are creative forces in music who operate with almost military precision. Hal Willner isn’t one of them. He is a schmoozer, a catalyst, a firm believer in kismet. Rumpled, bearded, dressed in grey herringbone trousers, a black shirt and a fedora, he began wandering around the orchestra section of the theatre’s auditorium, sometimes shouting a few words of instruction to the rehearsing musicians, sometimes conferring with Olli Chanoff, a sort of executive assistant who was translating Willner’s ideas into an executable reality.

“Do we know what we’re starting with?” a stage manager asked Chanoff. “Emily Haines,” Chanoff replied. “Piano. Strings. Maybe bells.”

“So Jarmusch is fine with us… with us showing this,” he told Chanoff, referring to something that would have to remain a secret until the curtain went up. “And we need to download this…” They sat down at a MacBook Pro and started listening to assorted versions of Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette, the theme song to the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV Show.

Emily Haines, gamine in jeans, came over to give Willner a hug. “I’m living in New York now,” she told him. “With my fiancé. In the West Village.”

Willner’s eyes lit up. “Well, we should have pie sometime.” Haines climbed up the stage stairs to rehearse a version of Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.”

“I was a big fan of her dad’s,” Willner explains, “and Carla Bley and all that stuff.” Paul Haines was a sort of Beat writer and poet. With the pianist and composer Carla Bley, he made Elevator Over the Hill, one of those epic, wacked-out albums that made the ‘70s what it was.

In his appearance and his discourse, Willner often seems like a man who was sent here by God to explain why the ’70s were better. He doesn’t disappoint. “That’s what I grew up in, and that’s what attracted me to wanting to do this,” he says when I ask him about the old days. “Stuff like going to the Fillmore and seeing Laura Nyro and Miles Davis in one show. Seeing Led Zeppelin and Roland Kirk in one show. Records like Lou Reed’s Berlin and the White Album and Sketches of Spain.

“The record became an art form like literature and theatre. And then something happened, I don’t know what it was, and now because of that, you can tell music’s the lower on the totem pole of all those things.”

What Willner does — first in those amazing, cockeyed tribute albums like Amarcord Nino Rota and That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, and more recently in live concerts where record-company allegiances and copyright issues are less thorny — is create those same juxtapositions of style and personality.

Why Neil Young, to follow his Leonard Cohen project? “Neil Young was, if for no other reason, somebody whose music I didn’t know as well as I wanted to. Probably because in the same amount of time he wrote over 500 songs when Leonard had written, like, 110. The songwriting approach must be, I guess, that Young doesn’t labour over his songs like Leonard does. Which is also an interesting thing, you know? Probably writes them sometimes at breakfast. I wanted to find the reason.

“That’s the reason to do any of these artists, like Kurt Weill or whoever: as an education for myself too. And then the audience, hopefully, can come along with us.”

How much involvement had Young had in putting the show together? “Zero. Except he knows about it. He seems really appreciative. You also have to realize — I always say this: We adore everybody and love the body of work of anyone I approach. So there’s a real love. But then once you choose the subject, the tribute idea moves to the side.

“I’m not doing a ‘tribute.’ What I’m doing is, hopefully, taking this body of work, finding the right artists, and seeing how it affected us and our work and trying to make a balance.”

And is there anything remotely Olympic about all this, except the timing and the budget money? We’re looking at it like that [an Olympic event],” Willner said. “We’re going to play the Olympic theme to bring people on.” He paused to consider. “They don’t know that.”

By their nature, these things are always a bit of a shambles. There is never enough time to get everything right. Elvis Costello and Colin James were among the artists who signed on at the very last minute. Two shows won’t be enough to attain any kind of polish. “I always say, the first night’s a run-through, the second night’s the dress rehearsal, and then the show happens in heaven.”

The formula follows a few simple rules. Throw huge stars together with unknowns and cult figures. Get everybody out of their comfort zone. On one tune, he was planning to have James Blood Ulmer, the avant-jazz guitar shredder from the old Ornette Coleman Prime Time band, accompany Lou Reed. “It’s gonna kill. Well, kill in one way or another.”

While Willner spoke with me, Ron Sexsmith and Jason Collett sat in chairs in the auditorium, watching Haines rehearse. Willner got up at one point to tell the percussionists to play less orchestra bells and more timpani. “It was sounding Christmasy. And this isn’t a Christmas song.”

He first did what he calls “this Vaudeville thing” with his 1981 tribute to Nino Rota, the Italian movie-score composer. Released independently, it sold respectably, so A&M Records started sniffing around, wondering whether Willner had any other ideas. “That’s what they said: ‘What’s your next idea,’” Willner said, rolling his eyes, as if to emphasize that ideas don’t grow on trees.

Then Thelonious Monk, the great and eccentric jazz pianist, died in 1982. “And I went to a tribute show they had at Carnegie Hall. And it was all jazz people. And I went, ‘Where’s NRBQ? Where’s Donald Fagen? Proclaimed Monk freaks?’ And Oscar Peterson went on stage, who vocally did not like Monk. What was he doing here? And I went, like, ‘Fuck.’”

So Willner got together with pop musicians both mainstream and underground, like Joe Jackson, Chris Spedding and Peter Frampton, and recorded versions of Monk’s iconic tunes, here and there with no budget, using borrowed or begged studio time, interspersing them with more traditional (but only slightly more traditional) interpretations by jazz stars like Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy. The resulting Monk tribute stands today as one of the most gorgeously weird recordings of the second half of the 20th century. (It will be re-released next year, for the first time in its entirety, on CD.)

These juxtapositions of styles and genres almost always fascinate the musicians who take part, Willner said. “During the show, at the side of the stage, you’ll see a whole sitting area. So the artists are not sitting in their dressing rooms, waiting to go on. They usually sit on the side. So it becomes a thing where they’re cheering one another on.

“And I remember why I got into music in the first place. This was all about music and community, not who’s famous, who’s not; not who’s playing jazz and who’s not. And if you notice, you won’t find a whole lot of record-company people at these shows.”

Willner has worked with record companies many times, but as a rule he doesn’t like them. “A lot of record companies one walks into, big ones, these days, where we were used to half people like us and half business people, it’s all business people and one house hippie. You know, one has a house hippie that can talk to Beck about music.”

What he likes more — speaks with real enthusiasm about, in fact — is his work as the music director for Saturday Night Live. He books the bands, usually utterly mainstream, sometimes with a twist. He works on music for the comedy sketches. He hangs out.

“It’s 20 shows a year and it’s a great place to be. I’ll never leave it. It’s not just a job. You’re encountering the changes of New York. Saturday Night Live has always reflected what’s going on in New York. Crazier in the ‘70s, now it’s another thing, it’s a new kind of comedy, you know, it’s interesting. And New York was broke then, and dangerous. Now it’s a new thing. And it’s never been less creative because of all of that.”

The one thing he’d still like to do is to return to television. For a year in the late 1980s he helped produce Night Music, the Sunday-night David Sanborn show that would throw musicians from different genres together, much as in a Hal Willner concert. Jeff Healey might be on with Mavis Staples, or Joe Cocker with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

“What I think I’d love to do is go back to music TV. It needs something like this. You know, what you see on these shows [the stage shows like the Neil Young tribute] is, there’s more great music than there’s been in decades — due to the internet. Because artists that aren’t good in a room, that wouldn’t connect politically with record companies, are getting their music out.”

In a way, the 21st century is starting to look rather agreeably like that heady moment of the 20th century that was the 1970s. Big record companies that didn’t rise to dominate the creative enterprise until 1980 or so have now, for the most part, lost that controlling position. For Willner, it’s a welcome retreat from what he calls “corporate thought.”

“I’m not even saying anything bad about corporate thought. It’s just corporate thought. And corporate thought doesn’t understand that music is about trust, about patience, about community, about loyalty.”