Although Hal Willner has been one of the most respected producers in the music business since the 1980s, he hasn’t exactly spent those decades chasing the brass ring. So, at a charitable gala paying tribute to Willner in Brooklyn Thursday night, the reluctant honoree got a knowing laugh from the supportive crowd when he referenced the self-effacing comedian Jack Benny and confessed, “I’ve spent the last 40 years as a producer creating things that would make sure this didn’t happen.”
In truth, he’s spent those decades generating the good will that made a night like this inevitable. Laurie Anderson and David Johansen were among the NYC legends paying tribute to their old pal. Actress Chloe Webb was among the emcees, and support also came in the form of taped video performances and messages from the likes of Nick Cave, guitarist Bill Frisell and singer Diamanda Galas. The show at the boundary-breaking artists’ space Roulette was a chance for to New York to do what it does best: celebrate one of its own.
The evening, which showcased many of Willner’s offbeat musical interests as well as his deep friendships, offered a case of an homage payer being paid some homage back. Besides being a mostly behind-the-scenes musical fixture of “Saturday Night Live” over a period of decades, Willner is best known for his eclectic series of tribute albums, with cult-all-star albums dedicated to the work of everyone from Kurt Weill to Disney. (Willner continues making tribute records all these years later, with a T. Rex tribute album coming out on BMG early next year.)
The opening live performance had Teddy Thompson (with a house band led by music director Steven Bernstein) doing a rousing version of Leonard Cohen’s prophetic song, “The Future” — a nod to Willner’s own documentary and soundtrack projects celebrating Cohen’s work. Pianist Eli Brueggemann performed the opening piece from Willner’s first tribute album, a 1981 salute to “Amarcord” and the film music of Nino Rota.
A moving interpretation of the Duke Ellington classic “Solitude,” featuring bassists Ratzo Harris and Conrad Korsch, was inspired by Willner and Bernstein’s joint music production of Robert Altman’s 1996 film “Kansas City.”
An entertaining montage of clips from the short-lived cult television show that Willner worked on in 1988-90, “Night Music” (1988-1990), served as an instructive reminder of Willner’s longstanding knack for curation and creativity. Footage included bits by artists as diverse as Cohen, Sonny Rollins, the Residents, Sun Ra, NRBQ and Sting; many of the performers that appeared on that odd little program at Willner’s behest became his lifelong friends and collaborators.
Reflecting on some of Willner’s nostalgic pursuits, longtime associate Janine Nichols performed the Doc Pomus chestnut “Just To Walk That Little Girl Home,” while clarinetist extraordinaire Doug Weiselman sang comic Alan Sherman’s satiric novelty “I’ve Got The Customers To Face.” Kembra Pfahler looked devilishly fetching in full costume and makeup performing “The Horror Is Gone,” which was written by Anhoni and drawn from Willner’s tribute to Edgar Alan Poe. Fellow “SNL” music director and saxophonist Lenny Pickett performed a solo tune with a prerecorded backing titled “Solo With Tape.”
The hardworking Laurie Anderson did an entertaining monologue, led the crowd in a head-clearing primal scream, played a vintage clip of her doing a routine with a cloned version of herself, and performed magnificently on violin alongside cellist Rubin Kodheli. Remembering Willner’s foray into the work of archival musicologist Harry Smith, Johansen came out to sing a badass version “James Alley Blues.” Another high point came in the tandem of Willner and Chloe Webb reading an extended segment of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, “Howl.” Finally, Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Police Woman, performed a captivating solo version of Neil Young’s “On The Beach” to close out the evening on a very strong note.
The evening wasn’t just in honor of Willner but in celebrate of the 40th anniversary of Roulette (whose David Weinstein co-emceed with Webb). In accepting the evening’s honors, Willner was quick to put the focus back on the community at Roulette and their ongoing support of bold, risk-taking musicians and composers who are often on the fringe of the entertainment industry. (All proceeds went to Roulette’s forward thinking Future Fund.) Thankfully, his aesthetic has remained as constant as the host venue’s. Willner likes things on the left end of the dial, and we’re still reaping the rewards of his omnivorous, eclectic vision.