On this Saturday afternoon, Willner, the record producer renowned for daring multi-artist albums such as his new The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited, is wearing his hat as music director of Saturday Night Live.
On his desk at 30 Rock, there are Cecil Taylor and Jelly Roll Morton CDs, and across his T-shirt Chuck Berry is doing the duck walk as Willner goes about the nerve-wracking task of scoring a live television show that is being rewritten as the day goes on.
His far-ranging musical sensibility makes Willner, 49, the perfect man for this job – as well as the ideal mahoff to put together tributes to Kurt Weill, Italian composer Nino Rota, and jazz giant Charles Mingus, not to mention two other new projects, the Leonard Cohen tribute I’m Your Man and the Rogue’s Gallery collection of sea chanteys, featuring Bono, Lucinda Williams and Nick Cave.
“I was a music fan since I was born,” says Willner, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia before moving to Bala, back when his father, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, owned Hymie’s deli in Merion. “When I was 8, I actually saw the Beatles at Convention Hall. When I was 12, my mother took me to see the Cream at the Electric Factory,” then at 22d and Arch.
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