Remembering Hal Willner

April 6, 1956 – April 7, 2020


A tribute to the innovative record producer

The influential and inventive music producer Hal Wilner passed away on April 7, 2020 at the age of 64.

Hal Willner was born April 6, 1956 in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania.

He attended New York University in 1974 but soon dropped out due to his busy schedule in music his early work as a producer (actually an associate producer under Joel Dorn) was on albums by Leon Redbone and the Neville Brothers.

In 1980 he became the sketch music producer of Saturday Night Live, working with the show for 40 years.

Wilner produced the innovative TV series Sunday Night (later renamed Night Music) during 1988-90 which was hosted by David Sanborn and teamed together unlikely artists from a variety of musical genres; he also produced albums for Bill Frisell, Allen Ginsberg, Steven Bernstein, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, William S. Burroughs, Laurie Anderson and others, and organized many concerts.

However Hal Willner’s most significant work was his producing of unusual and memorable tribute albums that matched jazz artists with unlikely musical collaborators

He started in 1981 with Amacord Nino Rota, a tribute to Italian composer Nino Rota (who wrote the music for Fellini films) which included Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Jaki Byard, Steve Lacy, Bill Frisell, Carla Bley, and Deborah Harry among others.

A particular gem was That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk which featured such musicians as Dr. John, Carla Bley, Johnny Griffin, Donald Fagen, Barry Harris, Was (Not Was), John Scofield, Steve Lacy, Todd Rundgren, Randy Weston, Steve Lacy, Elvin Jones, John Zorn, Roswell Rudd, Eugene Chadbourne, Ken McIntyre, Bob Dorough, Gil Evans, and even Peter Frampton playing Monk’s music.

Other tribute albums included Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill, Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (including Sun Ra and Ringo Starr), and Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus,

Here is Jaki Byard, a pianist as eclectic as Willner’s musical tastes, featured on Hal Willner’s Amacord Nino Rota album.

-Scott Yanow

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