Willner died on Monday at the age of 64. The cause of death has not yet been publicly confirmed, but he was reportedly suffering from symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
In Costello’s homage, which he posted on Facebook, he recalled a recent meetup where they listened to the T. Rex tribute album Willner helmed as well as obscure songs from actor Albert Finney.
Costello also reflected on how a producer’s role can be misconstrued by people, with some producers applying “their own vision to the music.” With Willner, Costello said, it was different. “Hal’s approach better resembled the beautiful chaos of a childhood chemistry set, in which all of the substances and elements were mixed with joyous but determined abandon to render coloured smoke, a delightful explosion or something of unlikely and uncommon beauty,” he wrote.
The pair worked together on a number of projects, including the Willner-helmed Charles Mingus tribute album, 1992’s Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus; 1994’s video documentary, September Songs — The Music of Kurt Weill, for which Willner served as music supervisor; and on “Punishing Kiss” from the soundtrack for Robert Altman’s 1993 film, Short Cuts.
Costello described the Weird Nightmare project in his dedication, detailing the experimental quality of the sessions and the variety of artists that participated, which included Dr. John, Henry Rollins, Keith Richards, Leonard Cohen and Chuck D.
“This range of artists was not by any means unique in Hal’s work, nor was it a matter of marquee billing or stunt casting,” Costello wrote. “To engage with the gentle and curious assemblies of his productions was to surrender your fears and doubts, like discovering a box of paints full of previously unseen colours.”
“‘Condolences’ seems a word of insufficient depth for the way many of us feel today but we must not be selfish or feel alone but rather look to the light and imagination with which we will perhaps emerge from this dark and melancholy hour,” Costello said.