Hal Willner has become a sort of ‘Zelig’ figure in the music world over the last 30 years, an unassuming but important arranger, producer and musicologist who assembles wildly diverse groups of artists to appear on his Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Kurt Weill tribute albums.
In Willner’s world, there’s nothing strange about Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor or Chuck D sharing album space with James Taylor, Elvis Costello or Sting. In recent years he’s become best known for curating one-off events featuring a similarly broad spectrum of artists, over the last decade mounting live tributes to the likes of Randy Newman and Bill Withers.
Willner’s ‘Freedom Rides’ project was selected to close this year’s decidedly unjazzy Meltdown Festival – a brave choice for a gig taking place on the same night as the Olympics closing ceremony.
The evening, named after the civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated South and thus helped bring America’s and the world’s attention to the deprivations of the area, featured songs that accompanied the movement from the worlds of blues, jazz and folk.
There was a real sense of drama when drummer Allison Miller began proceedings with a gong, timpani and drum kit serenade during which the house band (featuring the likes of Julian Joseph on piano, Helga Davis on vocals and James Carter and Tony Kofi on saxes) filed in sombrely.
It seemed totally apt for Eric Mingus, son of Charles, to formally introduce the evening with an extraordinary vocal solo that incorporated bluesy yelps, bass babbling and a striking falsetto, before he segued into his father’s ‘Freedom’ which simultaneously stirred the soul and chilled the blood. Nona Hendryx’s powerful ‘Strange Fruit’ was laced with Martin Luther King speech extracts and some enjoyably dirty guitar work from Chris Spedding (after NY’s late great Robert Quine).
Peggy Seeger prefaced her powerful ‘People Like You’ with the startling comment that supposedly the Ku Klux Klan had come to the UK on a recruiting mission in 1965, before Mingus returned for a rock/gospel treatment of Sam Cooke’s epic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, a curious arrangement in light of the sublime late-‘80s Neville Brothers version.
The best moments of the concert were the most spontaneous, such as the thrilling blues battle between James Carter’s Ayler-like tenor sax and Helga Davis’s powerhouse vocals, the latter whispering afterwards: ‘That was as fun as it sounded.’ A patchy but gripping night of music emphasising what the power of music once did – and can still do.