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Bruce Hornsby: Beginner’s Luck

Bruce Hornsby (photo: Bill Milkowski)
Bruce Hornsby (photo: Bill Milkowski)
Bruce Hornsby
Bruce Hornsby
Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby is seated at the piano in his home studio in Williamsburg, Virginia, shedding on Fats Domino tunes. It’s his recent regimen in preparation for an upcoming tribute record that he’s about to participate in with fellow pop stars and Fats enthusiasts like Elton John, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Randy Newman, Dr. John and Tom Petty. The mood is broken when the phone rings. It’s a New York writer calling at the appointed hour, inquiring about Camp Meeting, Hornsby’s first-ever full-fledged jazz outing. But before turning his attention to that adventurous piano trio project with the dream rhythm tandem of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Hornsby is still caught up in the moment of channeling Fats. He puts down the phone and favors the caller with a pianistic sample, flaunting impressive two-handed independence and requisite N’awlins flair at the keyboard as he bangs out a few choruses of “The Fat Man,” Domino’s rollicking hit from 1949. Clearly, there’s a lot more to the Virginia native than “The Way It Is,” the hooky title track from his double-platinum-selling debut album from 1986.

I know that he’s primarily known as a singer-songwriter and a pop guy,” offers DeJohnette, “but upon a closer listen to his stuff, you can hear that he incorporates elements from other genres of music into his arrangements. And so he’s definitely a lot more musically cognizant of harmony, and is a little more sophisticated, in terms of where a lot of the music is coming from, than your average pop guy.

“Basically, he’s an improviser,” DeJohnette continues. “As he explained to me, ‘You know, I have a jazz heart.’ And listening to him play, you can hear that. He incorporates some jazz elements into his arrangements and he’s always searching for different things.”

A skillful player with an expansive harmonic palette, Hornsby has drawn on such wide-ranging influences as Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Bud Powell on the jazz side, and Charles Ives, Samuel Barber and Anton Webern on the classical side in crafting his own personal approach to the keyboard. “When people ask me to describe my style, I say it’s Bill Evans-meets-the-hymn-book,” he offers.

That feel is evident throughout Camp Meeting. While Hornsby has enjoyed a mega-successful career in the pop world, the Grammy Award-winning artist has been known to stick a big toe into the jazz pool from time to time. He flirted with jazz on 1993’s Harbor Lights, which featured special guests Branford Marsalis and Pat Metheny, and also on 1995’s Hot House with Metheny, Béla Fleck and Jimmy Haslip. But on Camp Meeting, he dives headlong into jazz’s deep waters along with McBride and DeJohnette. The results may surprise the jazz cognoscenti as well as Hornsby’s own core following.

“The musicians that I always wind up playing with,” says DeJohnette, “are those who have a diversified taste in music but then also have their own particular stamp, their unique way of expressing it. And Bruce has that. Whether it was the Bud Powell pieces we did, the Monk piece or ‘Giant Steps,’ he had different kinds of takes on them instead of doing them straight-ahead. It’s a lot of fun, like putting a new suit of clothes on these old familiar tunes.”

On Camp Meeting, classic jazz compositions are re-examined through Hornsby’s own unique prism: Miles Davis’ “Solar” carries his heartland signature, while Bud Powell’s “Celia” is imbued with a churchy feel on top of DeJohnette’s reggae one-drop groove. Says the pianist of his catchy arrangement of Powell’s 1949 classic: “We got into this thing on one take which is the old ‘Sex Machine’ riff by James Brown … that same staccato rhythm and melodic thing. And that’s the take we liked best. It’s very funky. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone takes that and loops it for a hip-hop tune.”

Hornsby tackles another Powell staple in “Un Poco Loco,” which he recasts as a quasi-calypso. “I’m a huge Bud fan,” he says. “I’ve played ‘Tempus Fugit’ in my band for years and I played ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’ with Marian McPartland on her radio show (NPR’s Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz!). ‘Glass Enclosure’ is another piece of his that I like to play. I love Bud. I think he’s underrated, underappreciated as a jazz composer, so I was glad to get two of his pieces on this record.”

His irreverent reading of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” opens with a wonderfully ratty-sounding drum-machine loop on top of which he layers open, rhapsodic chordal voicings before shifting to uptempo burn mode-fueled by McBride’s insistent walking and DeJohnette’s crisp, interactive swing pulse. The pianist also blows with rhythmic assuredness and remarkable fluency here, exhibiting serious chops over the myriad changes. Says Hornsby of his use of drum-machine loops on that sacrosanct anthem: “I never heard a loop playing swing at 144 [beats per minute] on the metronome. You always hear loops going at mid-tempo or slow tempo like on hip-hop and rap things, but I’ve never heard it on something really up. I find loops to be fun and easy to play along with, especially on the uptempo stuff. So I said what the hell. And Jack was skeptical at first but I think he bought into it in the end. He was always telling me to turn it down in the mixes, so ultimately it’s probably a little softer than I wanted but a little louder than he wanted.”

“Yeah, we went back and forth about how much of that we should use,” says DeJohnette with a laugh, “but in the end it added another unique texture to the music.”

Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” is reworked as a second-line groover. The poignant jazz standard “We’ll Be Together Again” is rendered as a melancholy requiem for solo piano for nearly three minutes; the rhythm section then enters to transform the piece into a jaunty mid-tempo stride number informed by Hornsby’s Garneresque filigrees and block chords. “I know this tune from The Bill Evans-Tony Bennett Album (Fantasy/OJC, 1975), which is one of the greatest recordings ever,” says Hornsby. “For this version I was looking for a little more angularity; less lush-sounding music. And I found a way to do it that felt right to me. In fact, I’ll probably sing the tune when we do it live.”

Hornsby and McBride turn in an evocative reharmonization of Keith Jarrett’s “Death and the Flower.” Says McBride of their affecting duet: “That is one of those songs where I think everyone is going to be pleasantly surprised. As a matter of fact, Bruce spent a whole lot of time talking to Jack about Keith. You know, he loves Keith so much it was like a little kid asking, ‘So how does Keith do this? How do y’all do that?’ Obviously, he’s got the Keith thing going in his playing, but again, he puts his own harmonic thing on it.”

The trio also indulges in some Ivesian dissonance on Hornsby’s quirky swinger “Charlie, Woody and You” (based on the Dizzy Gillespie bop vehicle) and jams playfully on the bluegrass-flavored “Stacked Mary Possum” (Hornsby’s extrapolation on the old-time fiddle tune “Black Berry Blossom,” which he plays in concert with the Ricky Skaggs band).

But the biggest surprise of all on Camp Meeting comes on the opener, a faithful reading of Ornette Coleman’s angular and frenetically swinging “Questions and Answers.” Says Hornsby: “It’s a never-before-recorded Ornette song which he taught me in ’95 when I did a session with him and [Coleman’s son and drummer] Denardo up at his Harmolodic Studio on 125th Street in East Harlem. He showed me two songs that day. One of them, a duet with me and Ornette called ‘Hop, Skip and Jump,’ actually made it onto my boxed set [2005’s four-CD Intersections]. Then later on, when I was preparing material for this new album, I was going through these old jam tapes and discovered this other performance from that session with Ornette that I thought was good enough to use. I didn’t even know the title of it so I got in touch with Ornette and he told me it was called ‘Questions and Answers’ and also gave me permission to use it. And let me tell you, that’s some hard shit to play!”

In conceptualizing his first jazz outing, Hornsby initially tried recruiting Metheny, but the guitarist declined the invitation. “I tried to get him, but he just stiff-armed me,” says the Virginia native, laughing. “Pat told me, ‘As a fan of yours, I want to hear just you. I think your first jazz statement should be totally about your aesthetic, your approach to this, because that to me is what’s interesting. So no, I don’t think I should play on your record.’ And I understood that idea.”

It was Metheny who first tried to persuade Hornsby to undertake a jazz project. “Certain people have been prodding me to make this record for years,” he explains, “and Pat is the prime one.

“Some years ago, he was doing a concert with the Charlottesville Swing Orchestra, which is under the direction of my former trumpet player John D’earth. So I went up there to hang with Pat and he asked me to sit in during the concert. We played ‘Solar’ and afterwards Pat said to me, ‘Man, you have to do a record of this.’ So that was the beginning.”

While Metheny may have been a major instigator all along for this jazz project (and indeed is listed as de facto executive producer in the credits), it was DeJohnette who finally helped Hornsby kick-start it. “It came about two summers ago [2005] when Keith Jarrett was playing Carnegie Hall with his trio,” Hornsby recalls. “After the concert I went backstage to say hi to the guys, and Jack immediately said to me, ‘Hey man, when are we gonna do something?’ I told him I had lost his phone number so he quickly wrote it down, handed it to me and said, ‘Here, now you have no excuse.’ I said, ‘Now my only excuse is fear.’ And he replied, ‘Well, if and when you get over that, give me a call.’ So Jack was the catalyst in the end. His little nudge backstage at Carnegie Hall was the final bit of encouragement I needed to put me over.”

DeJohnette recalls playing with Hornsby once several years ago and even got a solid impression of his playing from that one brief encounter. “I was aware of Bruce quite a while ago,” says DeJohnette. “I heard his name and had seen him on some videos. Then I actually played with him around 1990, ’91, when Herbie Hancock was doing his Coast to Coast TV show [which aired on Showtime]. We did a thing at the China Club. It was one of those all-star jams with Sting and Lou Reed and B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt. And I sat in. Bruce sat in, too, and I could hear then that he had some different stuff going on harmonically.

“After that initial meeting with Bruce, I kept seeing him through the years,” he continues. “He’d come to the Keith Jarrett concerts a lot since he’s such a big fan of Keith’s. And for a number of years he would talk about this idea of doing a jazz record, but he kept putting it off. He’d say, ‘I can’t get to it now because the company wants me to put out this next record. But I’m gonna get to it one of these days.’ I think Pat Metheny kept telling him, ‘Well, why don’t you go ahead and do it, man … do your take on classic jazz tunes.’ And I think he was a little apprehensive at first. But he finally got around to actually calling me and Christian to come and do it last year. I guess he did some shedding for a few months in preparation for the session, and you can hear it on the record. I’m actually very impressed by his playing. It’s a whole different world than Keith Jarrett but he’s playing some great stuff on that record.”

McBride recalls meeting Hornsby back in 1994: “The first time I worked with Bruce, it was with his regular band. When I talked at that point about working with him some more, I just always assumed it would be under his usual pop thing. So when he called and said he wanted to do a jazz trio CD with me and Jack, I thought, ‘Whoa! Really?!’ It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, though. I think he did a helluva job on the CD. I never got the sense that this was some pop guy trying to flex his muscles and say, ‘Oooh, look! I can play jazz too!’ He’s definitely got his own thing and I think that’s what makes it the most satisfying. He put a creative spin on some of these familiar jazz tunes to make things interesting and unique.”

Developing a chemistry together in Hornsby’s Virginia studio didn’t take long for the trio. “Of course, Jack and I had played together many times before,” says McBride. “In fact, he was the drummer on my second CD (1995’s Number Two Express on Verve). … Bruce sent Jack and me some demos, so by the time we got to Virginia to record we had an idea of what he was looking for in terms of arrangements and sound. From there he had us offer feedback about what would make each tune better. He listened to us and we listened to him. It was very much a group effort. So we kind of hit the ground running by the time we got to Virginia to start recording.”

As DeJohnette explains, “Initially, Bruce sent us a demo of him playing all the pieces, just solo piano. Then we had a conference call and we asked him if he really wanted to do this. And Bruce said, ‘OK, man, look, if this really sucks, I won’t do it. But I really think I can do this. So give it a chance.’ So we went to his studio in Virginia and started running over the tunes, and it started to come together quickly. We hadn’t really played together as a trio before, but we had the luxury of just being able to play the pieces a few times before putting them down to tape. And we got comfortable enough in the studio so that Bruce would be able to do what he does.

“For the jazz police or whoever to review this record and try and compare it to any other jazz players, I think, misses the point,” he continues. “You know they’re gonna do that, but taken on its own merits this is Bruce Hornsby and his attempt to make a contribution and also pay tribute to some of the jazz masters. I really like how the whole thing came out and I’m looking forward to some of the gigs we’re going to be doing with this trio. It keeps me stimulated and it’s a lot of fun.”

McBride’s assessment of their collaboration? “[Anybody] who’s never played with Jack DeJohnette before and decides that the maiden voyage would be recorded, that takes a lot of guts. I’m proud of him.”

“It’s quite a daunting project for me,” Hornsby says of Camp Meeting. “This is difficult music; it’s demanding. I know the language but I don’t speak it for a living. I liken it to this: Imagine you took French for six years. You could speak the language pretty well and then you didn’t speak it again for another 30 years, so you weren’t fluent in it anymore. And then all of a sudden you get hired to be the French translator at the United Nations. That’s what this project is like for me.”

Hornsby was learning to “speak jazz” during the 1970s while attending the University of Miami and also during two intensive semesters (the summer and fall of ’74) at the Berklee College of Music. After playing in bars while trying to solicit record company interest with demo tapes of his original tunes, Hornsby moved to Los Angeles with his brother and songwriting partner John to gain a foothold in the music business. He spent three years writing music for 20th Century Fox before hooking up with Huey Lewis, who would eventually produce Hornsby’s 1986 debut on RCA with his band the Range, and would also later score a pop hit with Hornsby’s song “Jacob’s Ladder.”

On the strength of the melodically catchy title track, The Way It Is stayed in the charts for a year and a half and sold two million copies, also earning Bruce Hornsby and the Range a Best New Artist Grammy Award for 1986. Subsequent releases like 1988’s Scenes From the Southside, 1990’s A Night on the Town, 1993’s Harbor Lights and 1995’s Hot House further cemented Hornsby’s pop stardom. His wildly ambitious double-disc outing Spirit Trail veered off the strictly commercial path and was critically lambasted. In his critique of that 1998 release, All Music Guide writer William Ruhlmann called the project a “portrait of unchecked self-indulgence,” prophetically noting, “Maybe it’s time for him to go all the way into instrumental jazz.”

Hornsby’s 2000 followup, the live double-CD set Here Come the Noise Makers, included versions of Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit,” Bill Evans’ “Twelve Tone Tune” and George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy,” along with strains of Samuel Barber and Bob Dylan.

With 2002’s experimental, electronica-tinged project Big Swing Face (also the name of a popular Buddy Rich album from the late ’60s), Hornsby explored looping technology to the max. And with 2004’s Halcyon Days he returned to vintage pop singer-songwriter form with a bevy of heavyweight guests onboard, including Elton John, Sting and Eric Clapton.

Now with Camp Meeting, perhaps his most provocative project to date, Hornsby has shifted back to uncompromising-artist mode. He’s hardly going after commercial airplay on this potent collaboration with McBride and DeJohnette. “The real hard thing for me was, and it still is, frankly, getting my chops to the point where I can really hang with these guys,” says the self-described dilettante. “I know enough to know where I’m really at on the instrument. I don’t have the chops of a Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Brad Mehldau, nor will that ever happen. But it’s been a side hobby of mine to sort of find my own way of playing this standard bebop and standard jazz repertoire, retaining a certain harmonic aesthetic in terms of the voicings.”

A little more than a year after their initial encounter in Hornsby’s studio in April 2006, the three principals on Camp Meeting got together for their first live performance at B.B. King’s nightclub in Times Square. “It’s my sad lot in life to have played with these guys for four days over a year ago and then our next time together is a gig in New York City with one rehearsal, which is nuts when you think about it,” says the pianist, laughing.

While Hornsby did express some trepidation before that premiere at B.B. King’s, the gig actually went off without a hitch. “I did OK,” he says. “Overall, I’d give myself about a B-, but I hope to be better. I’m proud of myself that I never got lost. I mean, sometimes they’ll break up the time so much that you’ll go, ‘Where the hell is one?’ So I was just trying to keep up with them, really.”

He did notice a significant difference, however, between their lone afternoon rehearsal and the gig later that evening. “After the first set I said to Christian, ‘Man, Jack sure played a lot more intensely on the gig than he played on sound check or rehearsal.’ And Christian gives me a look and says, ‘Oh, nobody told you about that?’ But then sure enough, on the second set Jack played very lightly. It was a completely different feeling-both great, mind you. The first set was more of a rock energy while the second set was much more subtle. And you know, I can bang a little bit. I prefer to play with a lighter touch but they’re both fine with me. So it kind of threw me for just a second to jump into something new like that, but I dealt with it because I’ve sat in a thousand times with different bands and had to find my way in the music. I just found it interesting to be learning on the job in New York City, of all places.

“It’s beautiful, at age 52, to still be in situations where you get your ass kicked on the bandstand,” he continues. “I’m a lifelong student and that’s a beautiful thing about what I do: You can stay engaged in this forever. You can spend two lifetimes and not deal with all the piano literature that’s out there. And to me, that pursuit of the unattainable is a great way to live your life. That may sound nuts but that’s how I really feel. The journey is what it’s about. And for me, that B.B. King’s gig back in June was the beginning of a journey down this jazz path.”

A restlessly creative spirit, Hornsby continues to juggle solo piano concerts, gigs with his band the Noise Makers, and touring as a special guest with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder (from the late ’80s until the band’s 1995 breakup he also sat in regularly with the Grateful Dead). Despite such an eclectic and busy musical life, Hornsby says he has found a rewarding new outlet in this jazz trio with McBride and DeJohnette. “I consider myself primarily a songwriter, and that’s really what I love to do the most,” he says, “but the jazz thing has always been a big influence. And I think this new trio record is something that was always in me, conceptually.”


Bruce Hornsby: Steinway & Sons pianos

Christian McBride: Juzek 7/8 upright bass, Unknown German 3/4 upright bass, Epifani amps, D’Addario Helicore strings

Jack DeJohnette: Sonor drums, Sabian Signature Series cymbals, Aquarian, Signature drum heads, Roland HPD15 percussion module, Korg keyboards

Originally Published