Bruce Hornsby has spent a lot of time since his last album in 1990 on outside projects--from playing keyboards for a year and a half with the Grateful Dead to appearing on records by Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Nicks, among others.
In fact, the singer-songwriter was so busy that many of his fans wondered whether he was ever going to make another album of his own. The guessing game ended with the recent arrival of his fourth album, "Harbor Lights."
"Working with all these artists is fun, but I just got tired of playing a part in everybody else's music and not creating my own," the 38-year-old Virginian says. "There was some music I wanted to explore."
Even when Hornsby surfaced in 1986 with the hit single "The Way It Is," it was apparent that he was a jazz musician masquerading as a pop-rocker. With "Harbor Lights," the masquerade is finally over. Though it includes pop-oriented tunes and features such guests as Phil Collins and Jerry Garcia, this is mostly a jazz album.
"It's like a jazz trio record--piano, bass and drums," says Hornsby, who scrapped his longtime band the Range. "My piano style has always been a jazz style played over pop songs. My piano solos on past albums don't owe anything to people like Jerry Lee Lewis but to jazz artists like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett."
Jazz textures dominate this album for a simple reason--Hornsby was the producer. "I was in charge, so I could install my sound," he says. "My other albums would have sounded different--with more guts and jazzier--if I had been the producer."
Describing some of the album's cuts, Hornsby says: "They feature some weird chords and polytonality, with some stretching, some jamming."
Sounds familiar--like a description of those loosely structured Grateful Dead opuses. "There's a Dead influence on the album that can't be denied," he concedes.
Which brings up a question. Inquiring Deadheads want to know: Will Hornsby ever go back to the Grateful Dead full time?
"The Dead introduced me to a new audience, and I'm grateful--no pun intended," Hornsby says. "I sit in with the band from time to time as a guest and Jerry (Garcia) wants me to play on the band's next album. But I won't return as a full-time member."