The record producer and impresario Hal Willner, who died Tuesday at age 64 of COVID-19 complications, was one of the world’s great listeners. He was a cult figure of a type that no longer really exists, revered by a small but passionate confederacy of aficionados, critics and musicians, not so much for creating music as for understanding it — for broad and discerning taste that ranged across genres and eras to make surprising connections and foment unexpected collisions.
He began his career in the 1970s, working as an assistant for another arch-tastemaker, the Atlantic Records producer Joel Dorn. In 1980, he got a job overseeing the musical skits on “Saturday Night Live,” and eventually became the driving creative force behind a short-lived late-night music showcase, “Sunday Night” (later known as “Night Music”), which ran for just two seasons, from 1988-90.
The show was a music geek’s fantasy, with weekly lineups that aimed for eclecticism: a mix of downtown experimentalists, jazz legends, gospel close-harmony groups, dancehall reggae MCs, you name it. An episode that aired in the second season had a typically woolly guest list: the country Casanova Conway Twitty, avant-garde rockers the Residents, the classical innovators Kronos Quartet and the Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke. What would happen if you put Sonny Rollins onstage with Leonard Cohen, if Todd Rundgren and Taj Mahal joined forces to sing a Gilbert & Sullivan aria? Willner wanted to find out. It might be the greatest music show in TV history. It was certainly the hippest.
Willner is best known for producing compilation records and concert events that distilled his fascination with history and unlikely musical mash-ups. He assembled tribute albums, featuring a range of cult stars —and, occasionally, superstars —performing the songbooks of such heroes as Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill and the Italian composer Nino Rota. These were dream mixtapes; they didn’t sell in huge numbers, but they changed the listening habits and expanded the horizons of fans, critics and the musicians themselves. Their influence reverberates to this day. When you hear a singer-songwriter launch into an out-of-left-field cover or a DJ drop the needle on the best, weirdest record you’d never heard before in your life, the benevolent spirit of Hal Willner is hovering nearby.
In 2020, the term “curator” is overused and debased, a marketing label tossed at everyone from wedding consultants to Instagram influencers. But curation was exactly what Willner did: His records and stage shows were testaments to erudition, exacting taste and a thirst for adventure. The internet, and streaming media, has allowed all of us to undertake Hal Willner-style musical voyages, with just a tap or two on a screen. But no algorithm can replicate Willner’s voracious mind and hungry ears. He turned music fandom into a kind of art. He was the connoisseur’s connoisseur.
Here are 10 great performances from Hal Willner projects.
Marianne Faithfull, ‘Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife’ (1985)
“Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill” was Willner’s breakthrough compilation, and this recording was one of its highlights. It’s a perfect meeting of performer and material: Faithfull, a chanteuse who would have been right at home in Weimar Berlin, snarling her way through one of the German American composer’s most ferocious songs.
Mark Bingham with Johnny Adams and Aaron Neville, ‘Oh Heavenly Salvation’ (1985)
Only Willner could have dreamed this up: a summit featuring arranger Mark Bingham and two iconic New Orleans vocalists, taking on a typically byzantine Weill ballad. Beautifully strange.
Yma Sumac, ‘I Wonder’ (1988)
The Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac, a star of midcentury “exotica” music, had largely faded from cultural memory when Willner asked her to perform on his 1988 anthology “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.” Did the lounge revival of the ‘90s first stir here, with Sumac’s delirious rendition of a song from “Sleeping Beauty”?
The Replacements, ‘Cruella de Vil’ (1985)
Another song from the Disney music compilation — an ode to the villain from “101 Dalmations” — bashed out by the Replacements in a shambling version. Great.
Ken Nordine, ‘Don’t You Wish’ (1989)
From the second season of the Willner TV show — which by then had been rechristened “Night Music” — comes this transfixing appearance by “word-jazz” poet Ken Nordine. (The performance begins at the 26-minute mark of the embedded video.) Nordine intones: “Don’t you wish that you could be something that you’re not / You could maybe oscillate deep inside a dot.” Whoa, man. Willner would go on to produce several albums of spoken-word material.
Sun Ra and His Arkestra, ‘Retrospect’ and ‘Face the Music’ (1990)
A thrilling “Night Music” performance by the great jazz composer, bandleader and interstellar traveler. In the interview before he begins playing, Ra is asked by host David Sanborn to explain “the unique way” he conducts the Arkestra. “Well, I’m trying to acquaint them with outer space things,” Ra says. “I’m trying to get the planet ready for spacemen, because they’re sure to land soon.”
Conway Twitty, ‘When You’re Cool (The Sun Shines All the Time)’ (1990)
Willnerian awesomeness in a nutshell: A “Night Music” performance featuring Conway Twitty, backed by the show’s great house band — with Sanborn on sax, Hiram Bullock on guitar and Omar Hakim on drums — while members of the Residents bop alongside. This really happened.
Elvis Costello, ‘Weird Nightmare’ (1992)
The title track from Willner’s tribute to the titanic bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Elvis Costello searches his way through the dissonances, while a killer group of New York avant-jazz luminaries — including Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Henry Threadgill — whips up an eerie racket.
Lucinda Williams, ‘Bonnie Portmore’ (2006)
Among Willner’s most delightful projects were the two collections of traditional “Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys” that he curated in 2006 and 2013. From the first of those records comes another example of Willner’s knack for pairing singer and song: Who else would have imagined that Lucinda Williams could sing a traditional Irish ballad, complete with a heart-tugging warble straight out of County Donegal?
Iggy Pop, ‘Asshole Rules the Navy’ (2013)
Another sea song — a very bawdy one — belted out by Iggy Pop, clearly relishing every last dirty word.