This music producer and arranger has worked extensively in the recording business and on TV, but his most recent high-profile work has been on two jazzy Robert Altman films, "Short Cuts" and "Kansas City". Willner is famed in the music world for arranging and producing an eclectic group of albums, featuring such artists and personalities as Sun Ra, Henry Rollins, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and Bonnie Raitt. While specializing in jazz and beat works, he has also reinterpreted music from Disney films (as well as scoring three new Daffy Duck cartoons, including "Night of the Living Duck," 1988), has issued reinterpretations of the works of Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Kurt Weill and others, and overseen "spoken word" albums of Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsburg and William S Burroughs.
Willner began providing sketch music for NBC's "Saturday Night Live" in 1980 and was music producer of the critically acclaimed but short-lived series "Michelob Presents Sunday Night" (syndicated, 1988-89), hosted by David Sanborn and produced by Lorne Michaels. He has also been music producer on such TV projects as tributes to Bugs Bunny and Superman (both CBS, 1986 and 1988), "Punch & Judy Get Divorced" (PBS, 1992), "The Music of Kurt Weill: September Songs" (PBS, 1995), the series "Live from the House of Blues" (TBS, 1995-1996) and others.
Willner's first big screen outing was the score for the animated short "The Duxorcist" (1987), the same year he was a music producer on the feature "Heaven", a limpid romance that included Bryan Adams' hit ballad "A Night in Heaven". He served the same function on "Candy Mountain" (1987) and the documentary "Heavy Petting" (1988), a cynical, post-modern look at 1950s dating as told by interviews with celebrities. Willner also produced songs for the films "Bad Influence" ("He Got What He Wanted" 1990) and "Fried Green Tomatoes" ("Barbeque Bess" 1991) before teaming up with Robert Altman for the first time.
"Short Cuts" (1993) was Altman's ultra-cool episodic film about a group of intertwined lives in modern California. Willner provided a modern jazz soundtrack, featuring famed singer Annie Ross (who also acted in the film), Iggy Pop and Michael Stipe. (The producer, however, purposely did not use the voices of cast members Hughie Lewis or Lyle Lovett.) A wide-ranging score, it contained modern jazz composed by Mark Isham, Elvis Costello and others, augmented with pieces by Dvorak, Stravinsky and Victor Herbert.
Willner and Altman collaborated again on "Kansas City" (1996), the director's tribute to the jazz scene of 1934. With music that was even more essential to the plot, Willner created his own small-town jazz orchestra to play everything from swing to jazz to barrel-house with a crew of hot young musicians and arrangers. Real-life musicians Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker were depicted in the film, and their music, as well as that of Basie and Ellington, was mined as well. The score was named the best of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
A recent non-Altman project was the 1993 documentary "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey", a tribute to the Russian professor who invented the first electronic musical instrument in 1920 (Ironically, its subject Leon Theremin died just as the film went into release in 1995). Willner is also a founding father of The Knitting Factory, an alternative music club and record label in New York, which has provided a forum for such talents as John Zorn, Samm Bennett and David Murray.