Bruce Hornsby, the singer and pianist who will forever be known for his socially conscious hit “The Way It Is,” has gone and pulled a Harry Connick Jr., abandoning his vocals for an album of instrumental jazz. But Hornsby’s transition is more radical, for three reasons. One, despite his jazz training, he has been known until this point as a pop musician. Two, he is working in a trio now, whereas Connick’s vocal-less group is a quartet in which a saxophonist shares the spotlight. Three—and here’s the big one—Hornsby has recruited two of the best in the business to back him up: bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
To boot, Hornsby has put together a spectacular program for Camp Meeting, one that mixes some of the most familiar themes in the jazz songbook (“Solar,” “Giant Steps,” “Straight, No Chaser”) with a few originals (“Camp Meeting,” “Stacked Mary Possum”) and lesser-known compositions from jazz giants (Ornette Coleman’s “Questions and Answers,” Keith Jarrett’s “Death and the Flower”). And what fun this record is. Blindfolded, I wouldn’t have guessed this was Hornsby if you gave me 200 tries. Nothing here sounds like his pop music. Not only is his playing remarkable, but so is the interaction among the three musicians. The music stretches and contracts. It races, it gallops and it rumbles. It sounds like Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea and Bud Powell and Bill Evans, all of them and none of them.
His “Giant Steps” follows Coltrane’s rapid succession of chord changes but, until the very end, none of the actual chords. Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” becomes funky and sprightly, almost a new tune. His old-meets-new concoction called “Charlie, Woody and You” slithers and glides, Hornsby’s hands contrasting against each other. The support he gets from McBride and DeJohnette is magnificent too. Invited to try something new, they play with a heightened sense of freedom. If these guys stick with it, they’ll be the freshest piano trio out there.