Saturday, June 25, 2016

Let’s Have a Puppet Show: Hal Willner’s residence at the Stone, Summer 2016

I’m not sure if Hal Willner is a national treasure yet (despite grey hair, he’s not that old). He most certainly is a NYC treasure, though, thanks to the tribute concerts he produces each summer. This year, the Willner shows came early — a week of curated events at John Zorn’s Stone club ran last week, June 14-19. I attended four of the seven shows and was, as always with his work, bowled over by the high quality of the events and the complete lack of press/Net recognition that they even occurred.

So it’s time for another Willner round-up (I wrote about his 2014 events at the Stone here). All four of the shows were sublime but the first and last were extra-special for a number of reasons. In fact, the first was so terrific that I’d count it as one of the best shows I’ve seen in many a month. There is something about the no-frills nature of Willner’s shows that makes them more impressive than big-budget extravaganzas.

It’s been 25 years since Willner produced Amarcord Nino Rota, the first of his famous tribute albums (every one of which is worth your time and attention). To celebrate this milestone he gathered an 11-person band that performed most of the album, with Rota’s Godfather theme thrown in for good measure.

The Rota tribute. Photo by Bruce Pross.
The result was an incredible hour and a half of beautifully played music. Without a single Fellini image being projected, it was one of the finest tributes to Il Maestro than I could imagine. It would be unfair to single out any one of the musicians, so I’ll just mention the four arranger-performers: Karen Mantler, Steven Bernstein, Giancarlo Vulcano, and Steve Weisberg.*

Willner served as the m.c. for the event, offering accounts of two meetings with Fellini. He initially played him the album over a Walkman, and Fellini gave him the title for the project. The second time around he presented the finished album to the filmmaker, not realizing that the lady who is emblazoned on the front cover in a great photo from Juliet of Spirits, Sandra Milo, had written a tell-all memoir, which had recently been published and told stories about Fellini that he was none too pleased with.

Willner’s other “editorial note” concerned The Godfather score, which had its Oscar nomination pulled because Rota was accused of having recycled themes from 8 1/2 . Hal then noted that The Godfather Part II did win for its score, but that it reworked themes from Rocco and His Brothers.

Thankfully, a poster named "Il Grand Waz" has posted an eight-minute segment from the show on Facebook, and has kept it "unlocked" for public viewing. See it here.

The sheer joy of being in a small venue with eleven top-flight musicians playing the chronically bouncy (yet strangely wistful) music of Rota set the bar so high that I couldn’t believe anything could match that performance. The second night was a bit looser (Willner noted there was little rehearsal done for one half of the show). It was a blending of two humorous takes on “beat” language, Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” albums and Del Close and John Brent’s 1959 comedy LP How to Speak Hip.

The show was driven by a small jazz ensemble, with four performers providing the verbal silliness. Laurie Anderson and Willner handled the Nordine pieces, while Adam McKay (yes, the director of Will Ferrell vehicles and The Big Short) and Steve Higgins (the announcer on the Fallon Tonight Show) tackled the Close/Brent shtick. Willner and McKay were good, but Higgins was surprisingly great as a late Fifties hipster and Anderson was naturally note-perfect doing the Nordine bits.

On the third night, it was Willner and two DJ friends, Martin Brumbach and “Mocean Worker” (Adam Dorn), creating an imaginatively weird and lively tribute to producer Joel Dorn. Willner named the event after his only “solo” album, Whoops I’m an Indian, but the items being mixed and sampled were quite different from the contents of the original LP.

Using Dorn’s recordings as a base for the soundscape they were creating, the three DJs — Brumbach and Dorn on computers, Willner on a portable record player — overlaid beats, orchestral and jazz snippets, gospel vocals, random noises (at least one courtesy of the indispensable Spike Jones), and odd instrumental sounds Hal created with his iPad as well. Comedy record geek that I am, I was most impressed that Willner interjected bits of W.C. Fields (“The Temperance Lecture”), Laurel and Hardy (from Blockheads, Lord Buckley (“The Nazz”), and a Yiddish-oriented comedian I’ve never heard of (Marty Gale, the LP title: Sexy Stories with a Yiddisha Flavor).

The Dorn tribute. Photo by
Steve Weisberg.
One could sense the respect the trio of mixers had for Joel Dorn’s work because, as the show went on, the Dorn-produced pieces of music were increasingly left alone. Also interesting was Willner’s “mad professor” approach to DJ-ing — he clearly has an amazing record collection and an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. He also was, oddly, tossing the LPs and record covers onto the floor, leaving me wincing about possible scratches (although when he did this you could indeed get a good gander at some of the covers — including items he chose not to sample, including the kiddie record Let’s Have a Puppet Show).

Willner crafted three “finales” for this week of shows. I couldn’t go to the final two — a prior appointment with a movie festival kept me away from a show centered around Band legend Garth Hudson, and I had seen a prior performance of “Doing the Things We Want To,” the tribute show that found Hal and actress Chloe Webb reading the works of Lou Reed, Kathy Acker, and Allen Ginsberg, while backed by a great rock-jazz band. (For posterity, I will note that there was a late show earlier in the week at the Stone in which Willner read from Ginsberg’s work with piano accompaniment by NRBQ’s Terry Adams.)

The “finale” I did see, which rivalled the Fellini/Rota show for its tightness and joyous “party” vibe, was “Let’s Eat — Feasting on the Firesign Theater.” I should confess at the outset that the Firesign has never been one of my favorite comedy acts, but watching their bits performed as scripted radio comedy — again, with a sublime jazz backing — was sheer bliss.

As always with Willner’s shows, the ensemble he put together was a primary attraction (in this case I knew the work of several of the acting participants, but even if you don’t, Hal’s shows are a terrific gathering of talent). A total of seven musicians under the direction of Steve Weisberg offered a beautiful jazz backing to the comedy (with Weisberg on keyboards and Rob Scheps on sax qualifying as MVPs).

The cast of actors playing multiple roles in each Firesign sketch was equally impressive. Willner, SNL writer Jim Downey, Altman collaborator, scripter, and composer Allan Nichols, and John Ventimiglia (The Sopranos) played the male parts (the first three gentlemen demonstrating that they may have indeed listened to these albums over and over again when they were younger). The welcome twist put on the original material — besides the insanely good jazz backing — was that three women played the female roles and random other voices: Vera Baron, Janine Nichols, and Chloe Webb.

The original cast: the
Firesign Theater in "Nick Danger"
The ensemble performed one of my favorite Firesign bits, the parody of old-time radio private eye shows “The Adventures of Nick Danger” (in this case the full-length episode from the second side of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All)). The show had relatively low attendance (NYCers will only come out to shows that have been declared cool, hip, or otherwise “essential” by some website or publication). But that didn’t change the dynamic of the performance, which was indeed like a party — a party at which surreal, conceptual humor from decades ago was celebrated with many odd but welcome twists and turns.

As with the Nordine/”Hip” show, a full jazz band wasn’t required by the material, but they were indeed a bonus for those in attendance. Willner’s small-venue shows find him indulging all his tastes, and the players he recruits make the events all the more memorable. Hal is producing a free tribute to his friend Lou Reed at Lincoln Center on July 30. I’m not sure who or what material will be included, but it’s certain that this won’t your average “songbook” concert.

One can’t help but be grateful for Willner’s annual salutes in NYC to poets, legendary film composers, conceptual comedians, music producers, and cult performers and musicians. It’s just a matter of waiting for the next show he produces and wondering what he’ll take on next year….

*The other musicians should be named as well: Doug Wieselman (guitar, clarinet), Lenny Pickett (woodwinds), Marcus Rojas (tuba), Curtis Fowlkes, Brian Dye (trombone), Brad Jones (bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums).

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A hero outside of the ring as well: Deceased Artiste Muhammad Ali

So much has been said about Muhammad Ali as an athlete, an entertainer (for he surely was that), and as a civil rights icon. The guy was a hero in a bunch of ways, but one of those ways isn't talked about as much, because it made us all “uncomfortable” while it was going on. I'm referring to his dealing with Parkinson's, and the fact that he didn't shrink from the spotlight even after he admitted he had it. (He had been denying it for some time before that.)

His obits were accompanied by images of him as a champion boxer, a lot of them using the famous photo of him looming over Sonny Liston (which in and of itself was a victory but a cloudy one – read Nick Tosches' The Devil and Sonny Liston for more details). However, the most stirringly heroic image of his life for me wasn't when he was young, lean, clever, articulate, and “pretty” (the word he most often used in interviews to describe himself). It was when he lit the Olympic torch in 1996.

At the time I was younger and found it upsetting, seeing him in that condition. Now that I'm older I realize that it truly was a heroic act – letting the world see him in that state, one hand shaking wildly. Yet he did it, proudly showing he could do the task he was called up on to do. He was relatively young, a middle-aged man of 54 at that time and gravely afflicted by Parkinson’s, and while he was not the Ali of old (the loss of his dazzling verbal skills was indeed heartbreaking), he was still an athlete and a proud individual. The only footage of the event that is not punctuated by unnecessary talking heads can be found here.

The last surprise he had for us was when he spoke about the 9/11 attacks on a charity program, urging Americans not to associate the attacks with the Muslim faith as a whole. By that point Muhammad no longer consented to interviews, and the public perception was that he was incapable of audible speech. But he came out and delivered a message of tolerance that, while clearly rehearsed and scripted, was a triumph for those who had written him off as a “sad victim of Parkinson’s.”

He of course wasn’t the Ali of old, playing with words like he toyed with his opponents, but it was a touching moment to hear him speak about something that mattered to him deeply. Even while stricken with an irreversible ailment he was a man of principle who was fine with being seen in public in an “unflattering” (but still majestic) state.

Those are the two moments that I immediately flashed on when I heard about his death, but as a bonus I’ll just add this particular encounter between Ali and Prince I discovered in researching those clips. Here the normally quiet Purple One speaks about his reverence for Ali at a July 1997 press conference promoting an upcoming charity concert.

Ali’s condition in the last three decades (plus) made many argue that he should’ve quit boxing sooner, or that the sport should be outlawed entirely. Both of those options make sense, but if the latter had happened before 1960, we would’ve never been treated to some of the greatest moments in the sport, courtesy of the “prettiest” of them all.