Remembering when the late Hal Willner got Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins together on Night Music, in 1988
The legendary Hal Willner was much more than just the sound of Saturday Night Live, Willner has produced the music segments for their programming since 1981 but he had also produced records by the likes of Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful in that time. It made Willner and incredible middle man for musicians.
It garnered him a stellar reputation which meant that when Willner asked artists rarely said no. Willner, therefore, gave us many great moments over the years but this Leonard Cohen collaboration with Sonny Rollins from 1988 is right up there with the best.
One of many highpoints in Willner’s career was when he was the engineer on NBC’s Night Music. While there he oversaw a collaboration between wonderful Leonard Cohen and legendary Sonny Rollins. The programme wasn’t executive producer Lorne Michaels most successful idea but the show which was hosted by David Sanborn and Jools Holland did have some astounding moments.
Instead of being a mainstream clientele, it focused on some of the greats of the more obscure music of the day, ranging from jazz superstars Sun Ra to composers such as Phillip Glass. It was a place for off-beat artists to gain some exposure in a highly lucrative television spot.
Willner, who served as musical coordinator, would always be tinkering and trying to come up with ideas to improve the programme. One such idea was this great meeting of minds from Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins. Willner provides insight into how he persuaded the pair to perform Cohen’s ‘Who By Fire’ together in Sylvie Simmons bio I’m Your Man, revealing: “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.”
“Usually when people jam they go with uptempo things; that song had a spiritual aspect, but I knew that people would relate.”
The producer then spoke about the atmosphere during rehearsals on that particular day, telling Simmons: “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.”
Cohen’s back up singer Julie Christensen also recounted how Rollins politely came up to and asked: “Do you think Mr. Cohen likes what I’m doing?” and judging by the clip, Mr. Cohen cetainly liked what he was doing.
This moment was one that stood out to Willner as he discussed the show in an interview from 1992, stating: “I look at that show as a success. 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.”