Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bruce Hornsby: Broadening his full range by exploring many winding roads on a wonderful music journey

Bruce Hornsby /Deftly swinging a tune from one style to another
without ever missing an internal beat.

Bruce Hornsby is an American singer and keyboardist who draws from a variety of musical traditions, among them rock, jazz, classical, bluegrass, hymns and folk, that shape his songwriting talent. The Virginia-born composer has explored songs with Southern themes about race, religion, judgement and tolerance -- even penning a song "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," that's a reference to a character from Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. 

An avid basketball fan, Hornsby is just as comfortable blending and re-working the melodies of legendary jam band Grateful Dead, whom he will sit in as a guest keyboardist during their 50th anniversary farewell concerts this summer, as he is paying homage to bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. In addition to collaborating with the Grateful Dead, Hornsby's creative interest has also sparked working with Rickie Lee Jones, Ornette Coleman, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and Pat Metheny on various projects over the years as well as on his own in a career that has spanned two and one-half decades.

The spontaneity and creativity of Hornsby's live performances are loose and playful, and he welcomes requests from his audiences, which are collected before the start of each show and sit visible across the top of his Steinway & Sons grand piano.

Bruce Hornsby / Exploring and improving.impr
The 60-year-old Hornsby's solo performances, such as the one I attended last week in Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, offer him a limitless opportunity to challenge himself: through reworking originals, segueing songs into other songs, and blurring the lines of classical compositions and jazz standards.

Performing solo, as he did for two hours on a recent Wednesday evening in Berkeley, has allowed him to "recommit (himself) to the study of piano" and "take (his) piano playing to a whole new level."

"My standard line," Hornsby says of his solo concerts, "is: I'm not the vehicle for your nostalgic night out. But I will be kind."

These explorations and improvisations culminated in Hornsby's first entirely live solo piano album, entitled Solo Concerts, released in August 2014, which was given out to all ticket holders the night I saw him perform in Berkeley.

The 21 tracks which comprise the album were culled from solo concerts performed by Hornsby throughout the U.S. in 2012 and 2013. They bring together "disparate information from musical languages often thought to be opposed: Americana roots music, folk-pop, film scores and modern classical, what Hornsby calls an 'unholy alliance.'"

There are solo renditions of recognizable Hornsby chestnuts ("Mandolin Rain" and "The Valley Road") as well as boogie-woogie ("Preacher in the Ring"), a Spike Lee film score ("Song E {Hymn in E-Flat}") and modern classical with the "dissonance and expressive chromatics" of 20th century 12-tone experimental composers such as Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, as well as the American modernist Elliot Carter, Hungarian Gy├Ârgy Ligeti and Frenchman Olivier Messaien.

"There's often a bias in the rock or pop world against virtuosity," said Hornsby, in the program notes for his Cal Performances concert in Berkeley. "I understand that mindset: expression over virtuosity. But my feeling is, why not both?"

After all, it's not clinical, what Hornsby does as well and as enjoyable as anyone. His two-handed independence at the keyboard is really vibrant and emotional. It's what he calls the pursuit of the unattainable. And, yet, his solo concerts turn his audiences into adventurous music listeners.

That's the way it is.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images and © Kirk Stauffer Photography.

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