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Jazz -- just the way it is

Bruce Hornsby's new album, 'Camp Meeting,' marks a foray into the genre that may surprise some fans. For the fusion-loving piano man, it's nothing new.

August 21, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Bruce HORNSBY doing a jazz gig may seem like an oxymoron, but not to anyone who's paid close attention to the pianist, singer and songwriter's career over the last two decades. When he walks on stage Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl, leading a jazz trio that also includes bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Hornsby will be reaching a high point in a genre that has been with him -- in various ways -- since he first considered music as a career.

Although Hornsby has flirted with jazz associations in the past -- including his 1993 Grammy-winning instrumental pop song partnership with Branford Marsalis on "Barcelona Mona" -- his new album, "Camp Meeting," is his first flat-out jazz recording, a convincing display of imaginative improvising.

Many of Hornsby's friends, aware of his long-term affection for jazz, had been asking him for years to make a jazz recording. But it wasn't until he met DeJohnette at a Keith Jarrett performance that an actual plan began to slowly materialize.

He confesses he had some fear that he might not be up to the challenge as an instrumentalist. Hornsby recalls DeJohnette telling him, "When you get over the fear, give me a call."

But even after he got over that hurdle, he knew he was going to have to come up with a media-friendly explanation for why, in his early 50s, with a hugely successful pop career in the bag, he was risking a move into unfamiliar territory. So he came up with a useful metaphor.

"It's like I'm someone who seriously studied French for years in high school and college and then dropped it," he says. "Then, a few decades later, somebody comes along and offers me a gig as a French translator at the United Nations.

"When I say that to people they totally get it. And it's appropriate. Because I know the jazz language, because that's what I was into," he says. "For several years in college, that's all I did. I was a real bebopper. I was trying to be Bud Powell and Bill Evans and all that. The Herbie-Chick-Keith scenario."

Hornsby's perspective began to change when he discovered -- after buying recordings from Ornette Coleman and Joni Mitchell -- that he was listening more often to the Mitchell album and gravitating toward the singer-songwriter area. Even there, however, aspects of jazz constantly infiltrated his music.

"The very first fluky hits I had -- 'The Way It Is' and 'Valley Road' -- both have not one but two piano solos, fairly long ones," he says. "And 'Valley Road' especially utilizes a jazz language in the music. The best comments I got when I had those hits were from my old U. of Miami music school friends who'd call me up and say, 'I can't believe what you're getting away with on Top 40!' "

How does he expect his dedicated fans to respond to a recording that moves beyond the use of jazz inflections and into an adventurous, straight-ahead jazz collection based on material from the likes of Coleman, Powell, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane?

Hornsby laughs. "Well, look at it this way," he says. "Because I've had this odd, 20-some-year career, this crazy journey, working with so many people, from the Dead, to Don Henley to Dylan -- the three Ds -- I have, in a nutshell, a very disparate audience. So disparate that fights sometime break out.

"Start with Stockbroker Stan and his wife, who are there for a nostalgic night out," he says. They usually get mad "because they're not hearing the tunes they want to hear, because I'm not the vehicle for a stroll down memory lane. Then you have Dreadlock Dave, who's there because he heard me play with Jerry and the boys. He's hoping I'll play a Dead tune or just jam. So Dave is standing up, dancing in front of Stan, and Stan says, 'Hey, man, sit down.' And Dave turns around and says, 'Loosen up, old stiff.' And fisticuffs ensue."

Hornsby has been sneaking jazz -- and other challenging elements -- into his music for years. His tune "Spiderfingers," which is about playing as much as you can get away with in a club, has often been the vehicle for Powell licks. And -- stretching it to the limit in a very different direction -- Hornsby has been known to play excerpts from Anton Webern's Variations for Piano in one of his solo sets.

But no matter the setting -- whether his own music; his association with the Grateful Dead; a bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs that he released earlier this year; his A-list sideman work with Dylan, Henley, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and others -- Hornsby's personality comes through. And that applies to his involvement with jazz as well.

"I think," he says, "that it all really comes down to having been turned on by so many different styles of music. From 20th century American classical music to Bill Evans; and then folk music, shape-note singing, sacred-harp singing, white gospel music, the black gospel tradition of the Soul Stirrers.

"It's all about discerning what gives you chills, and then saying, 'Oh, I sure love this. I'm going to take it and put it in my pocket, and find my way of using it.' There are a lot of disparate elements," he says, "but they're all about the same thing: about finding your own way of playing music."

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