Hal Willner wasn’t known for playing music himself. But the producer, who died Monday at 64, had a unique gift for making music happen. Through his marvelously eclectic tribute albums — which featured everything from Tom Waits yowling out Snow White’s “Heigh Ho (The Dwarf’s Marching Song)” to Debbie Harry singing a wordless tune from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Chuck D declaiming passages from Charles Mingus’ autobiography — he turned countless sonic what-ifs into reality. As he once put it, through his curation he was “trying to to combine things that are sort of fantasy.”
One of Willner’s greatest coups happened in 1989 when he engineered a team-up between Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins for the short-lived NBC show Night Music. Executive-produced by Lorne Michaels and hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland, the program featured a stunning array of talent, from rock legends (Joe Walsh, Carlos Santana) to jazz royalty (Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra), visionary composers (Philip Glass, John Zorn), and inspired outliers (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Diamanda Galás). Sometimes, Willner, who served as musical coordinator, would even play mix-and-match with the guests.
“Leonard said he wanted to do ‘Tower of Song,’ but I had a fantasy in my head of doing ‘Who by Fire’ with Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins, who was another guest on the show,” Willner told Sylvie Simmons in her Cohen bio I’m Your Man. “Usually when people jam they go with uptempo things; that song had a spiritual aspect, but I knew that people would relate.”
At the rehearsal, as Simmons recounted, each musician seemed wary of the other. Finally, Willner said, “Sonny Rollins, who was sitting there staring at Leonard the whole time, picked up his horn and started wailing in a different kind of understanding of the song.”
Afterward, recalled Cohen back-up singer Julie Christensen, Rollins approached her and asked, “Do you think Mr. Cohen likes what I’m doing?”
Seeing the performance itself, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t. Rollins starts off with a stirring solo, backed by the Night Music house band and members of Was Not Was. Cohen faces the saxophonist as he plays, then turns around to start singing and playing “Who by Fire,” a somber and at times morbidly comic ballad cataloging various methods and states of death from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony.
Rollins shadows him during the first couple verses, then breaks into another improv feature, showing off his signature brawny tone and impassioned flow, with a hint of wit (at one point he quotes a phrase from “Pop Goes the Weasel”). Rollins ratchets up the intensity even more during one final feature, before ending with a wild circular-breathed coda. When he’s done, Cohen breaks into applause.
The whole thing is staggeringly cool, and it’s even more amazing to think that it went down on national television. This “Who by Fire,” which you can watch in full above, will stand as a monument to Willner’s ability to pull off seemingly impossible curatorial feats in highly visible settings.
“I look at that show as a success,” Willner said of Night Music in 1992, “I mean, look what we did. We had Sun Ra on NBC. We put Leonard Cohen with Sonny Rollins playing together. We had John Cale, Van Dyke Parks, Pharaoh Sanders — these people were all seen by a lot of people. … For a while, I can guarantee that show affected people.”