Bruce Hornsby Kills, No Range Required

Before I bought an iPod and discovered its magical shuffle function, I used to love making mix CDs. Everyone knows that mnemonically these CDs are small miracles, and when I toss one on at random today, it makes me remember specific periods in my life with an acuity that no smell, taste or memento can match.

These collections reflect my catholic—no, schizophrenic—tastes. I’m flipping through one I think I made when I was 19, though this particular disc is a one-off: There’s some electric Miles, Gang Starr, Lee Morgan, surf instrumentals and Sonic Youth, all still favorites, but no ’80s pop.

I unironically love ’80s pop, which is to say I don’t have to be drunk at a clichéd theme party to enjoy Tears for Fears or even Tiffany. I probably listen to this music more than the managing editor of a national jazz magazine should, but I can’t help it. Reagan-era Top 40 is like your local bar—it progresses your life in no way whatsoever, but it offers a comfort that’s difficult to pass up.

Digressing from terrible booze-related analogies, one ’80s tune that made it onto many of those mixes is cover subject Bruce Hornsby’s gargantuan hit from 1986, “The Way It Is.” It’s a great song, even better when you contextualize it in a decade when music prided itself on being disposable. It’s socially trenchant—a historical protest tune about racism and poverty when everyone else was internalizing “Material Girl”—and instrumentally sophisticated. When improvisation in popular music meant a poodle-haired guy from L.A. aimlessly running scales, Hornsby’s solos were fluid, melodic and smartly designed.

Still, months ago, when I received a press release announcing that Hornsby would be appearing at B.B. King’s in Times Square with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette, I scoffed. I had visions of DeJohnette riding out the backbeat to “The Way It Is” while reformed ’80s yuppies danced, Hornsby crooned, and McBride nodded off from boredom. Hornsby’s stints with the Grateful Dead didn’t give me much hope, either, not only because he played with the group during its artistic nadir, but because Deadheads drive me nuts. (Those people think Jerry Garcia invented improvised music in the way they think literature only extends as far back as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)

But then a prerelease version of the trio’s album arrived, and all bets were off. It’s a real jazz record, and although the self-deprecating Hornsby tries earnestly to convince you he’s not a real jazz pianist in this issue’s cover story, he is when he wants to be. Sorry, Bruce.

Camp Meeting is an unexpectedly engaging record. The lost Ornette tune “Questions and Answers” is all diamond-sharp angles from Hornsby and darting rhythms from DeJohnette; the theme of “Straight, No Chaser” gets funked out like never before; and “Giant Steps,” while it seems to exist here as a show-’em-what-ya-got vehicle for Hornsby, is infectiously propulsive thanks to DeJohnette’s ragged programmed beats. But Hornsby is a songwriter by trade and a composer on this outing. On the driving “Stacked Mary Possum,” the pianist bangs out a folkish chord sequence while laying down flittering runs that reek of Keith Jarrett and 20th-century classical music. The whole track is consistently tuneful and instantly likable—sort of like ’80s pop.

Originally published in October 2007

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