Bruce Hornsby Pop Pianos Premier Iconoclast Rises to New Musical Heights with Levitate

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“I describe my sound as Bill Evans meets the hymnbook,” Bruce Hornsby tells me, just a few hours before hitting the concert stage in Northern California. “There’s also some riverboat and ragtime thrown in there as well, sometimes alongside the fourth-chord angle of McCoy Tyner.” With an immediately identifiable piano sound that seamlessly merges the influences of Appalachian Americana with post-bop jazz — and more recently, hip-hop-ified funk beats — the three-time Grammy winner is always on the prowl for new sonic stories to tell.

Since bursting onto the scene with his smash 1986 debut album The Way It Is, Bruce Hornsby has become a musical fixture, challenging both himself and his listeners to chart new musical courses. That album’s title track scored a Top Ten hit, sticking two extended, quartal harmony, jazz-inflected piano solos in a five-minute pop song. He co-wrote and played piano on Don Henley’s 1989 classic “The End of The Innocence,” and added his signature keyboard work to Bonnie Raitt’s somber smash “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” But Hornsby’s deft pianistic prowess extends far beyond the realm of the typical pop song. He toured with the Grateful Dead, cut a jazz trio album with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and most recently, released and toured a bluegrass-tinged duo album with country fretboard ace Ricky Skaggs. Trying to classify Hornsby’s ever-changing musical trajectory is akin to putting too much stock in the weather forecast — you might as well just enjoy every moment, because you never know what’s coming next.

This month, Hornsby releases his tenth studio album, Levitate, on Verve Forecast. Featuring dynamic support from his longtime touring band the Noisemakers, Levitate finds Hornsby pushing the aural envelope once again — an historical narrative over an accordion drone on “The Black Rats of London,” the country-meets-Kanye vibe of “Prairie Dog Town,” the majestic, Irish-tinged waltz of “Continents Drift,” and the Eric Clapton guitar explorations on “Space Is the Place.” If there’s an overarching musical theme on Levitate, it’s Hornsby’s relentless pursuit of the unexplored.

Bruce Hornsby and I shared a piano teacher at the University of Miami. On the eve of his new record’s release, Hornsby takes time out of his busy summer concert schedule to share his thoughts on the songs of Levitate, and his remarkable career in music.

Levitate is your first record without extended piano solos. Was there a real determination on your part to focus on the writing and structure of the songs themselves?

It’s always been about the song for me first, but then I always wanted to find a place for the piano playing. This time I felt like, “Okay, it’s just going to be purely about the songs.” Because I think sometimes, in my situation, the level of the songwriting gets obscured by the playing. People think “Oh, Bruce Hornsby the piano player. And he also writes songs.” But for me, it’s always been the reverse. And that’s what I liked about [playing in] the Grateful Dead. My favorite aspect of their music is their songs. They’re totally underrated as songwriters, and I think their songwriting has been underappreciated because of all the other elements that were so unique in the music world. Where else can you play one song for an hour?

So this was just the time, and it was also a reaction to the last two records I made — the bluegrass record [Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby] and the jazz record [Camp Meeting], which were really about playing the instrument intensely.

You did a lot of playing on Halcyon Days too. There’s a ton of piano on that album.

On all my records, really. Even on Big Swing Face, which had no piano on it, I played a lot of Wurlitzer and synth solos. So this is the first time that I thought, “You know, I don’t need to do this. And the boxed set [Intersections 1985-2005] was really about stretching. So I thought this was the time for that.

Also, probably influencing this decision was the fact that fully eight of the 12 songs on the record are from [the Hornsby-scored Broadway musical] SCKBSTD and obviously, when you’re writing a musical play, it’s totally about the song, with no regard to some long, improvisational section.

Al Pacino had a great quote recently where he said “You’re as good as the chances you take.” You seem to be a working example of this — you make a pop record, then a jazz record, followed by a bluegrass one. You’re not interested in retracing the same steps you’ve already taken.

I’m a lifelong music student. I, like you, went to the University of Miami, and for me, it’s always been about developing and improving, broadening my range and my ability stylistically. Just becoming more proficient as a singer, as a writer and as a player. So if that’s your aim, you can’t help but continue to evolve and grow.

For the last several years, I’ve been really interested in twentieth century classical music. So I work on Elliot Carter, Schoenberg, Barber, and Ives pieces. Also Webern and Messiaen. That can’t help but influence the writing. So consequently on this record, there are two songs that are way more dissonant in their harmonic and melodic content. I’m talking about “Paper Boy” and “Michael Raphael.” I think of “Paper Boy” as sort of Schoenberg meets the Beatles. And I think of “Michael Raphael” as chromatic, melodic movement meets the Beach Boys. Ten years ago I would not have been as well-versed in that harmonic language, and so consequently, I would not have been able to broaden my songwriting palette with it.

The lyrical content on Levitate finds you stretching out as well. There’s a line on the song Invisible where you say, “Get the feeling I ain’t doing nothing but sucking.”

Right. [Laughs.]

Self-doubt is a really universal emotion, but few people have the guts to express those kinds of thoughts so bluntly in their songs.

There’s self-deprecation throughout my music increasingly. On the last album Halcyon Days, the “hit” was a tune called “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” and had the lyric, “Look in the mirror, see a clown’s face.” It’s all through it, but there’s more of it here.

Years ago, I heard an interview with Randy Newman, where he said he was writing a love song on assignment for Frank Sinatra Jr., and thought he “just couldn’t take it anymore.” From that point on, he made a conscious decision to write beyond the form of straight love songs. He wanted the songs to have characters as developed as other art forms, like literature and theater. I hear a mix of both on Levitate — songs with seemingly simple themes, and those that push the song format into new territory.

It’s interesting you bring up Randy talking about love songs. I have the same feeling. On this record, there actually is one love song. It’s one of the songs I’m most proud of, and my band members’ favorite song. It’s a love song, but it’s using the language of physics. It’s called “Here We Are Again.” I’m always looking for a unique take. I’ll write a love song if I feel like I’m doing something that takes it to a different place and puts a different slant on it. In this case, I felt like I was able to find a slant that was interesting to me, sort of a time travel fantasy that a guy who’s lost his wife is having. So his fantasy is traveling back through time. “Seven times around the world in a single second, I will swirl.” That’s referring to the speed of light. I just felt that was an interesting way to write a love song. And so because of that, it’s one of the songs I’m most proud of on a lyrical level.

Also, on the comedic level, you have “The Black Rats of London,” which is sort of Randy Newman-esque. I wrote that after reading an article in National Geographic that talked about the bacterial strains and rodents that came over on ships and infected the locals, and then in the revolution infected the British, and allowed us to prevail over them. I guess people don’t realize that something had gotten in the water or in the food of the British around Yorktown time, and they were really sick.

And it helped us, well, basically like the song says, “Parasites decimated the red army of Cornwall and his flock, standing weakly on Yorktown’s battlefield with measles and smallpox.” Once again, as I get older, I’m more interested in sardonic, hopefully amusing commentary, sort of trying to range far afield to find interesting subject matter.

There’s also a strong injection of modern, hip-hop inflected beats on the record.

Oh yeah. I love that.

That’s something that you’ve incorporated for a long time. I remember as far back as 1993’s Harbor Lights, with the song that Spike Lee directed the video for, “Talk of the Town,” that you had a penchant for using them in your music.

“Talk of the Town” was probably the first one like that. And then through the years there have been others, certainly on Big Swing Face there were several. And on this one Levitate you would say is certainly one of those. Even “Prairie Dog Town” has a real hip-hop loop, but I’m playing dulcimer over it. [Laughs.]

Yeah, it’s like Appalachia meets Kanye West.

Exactly. I just like it. You know, Ludacris is a very creative writer. And there are so many other great artists like that. My kids turn me on to these guys.

The kids sound great, guest-rapping on “Space Is The Place,” by the way.

They’re very funny. And then Clapton takes over. It’s great — my 11-year-old son’s into Clapton.

When I was listening to the new record, I was again struck by how you’ve created a harmonic and melodic language on the piano that’s all your own. The intro to “Cyclone,” for instance, reminded me of the introduction you played on “Every Little Kiss.”

You know, through the years, as I’ve listened to music and been turned on to music by friends, or by something I’ve read — whenever something would get under my skin and really give me chills, I would explore it. And transcribe it. And figure out what it was about this that was so intoxicating, so sensuous, and so moving to me. I guess it’s about years of exploring music and realizing fairly simply what moves me, and putting it into my own little sort of gumbo — and having it come out the other end as something that is identifiable stylistically.

The influences can come from a really broad range of places. A guy who I have been turned on to for the last many years is Paul Brady, the great Irish songwriter and singer. And his record of Irish folk songs called Welcome Here Kind Stranger is just stunning and moves me completely. And so that’s an area I would draw from. It’s not necessarily pianistic. It can come from any source. I was always into bluegrass and folk music, old traditional music. Hanging out with [Grateful Dead singer and guitarist Jerry] Garcia got me more immersed in that, because he was a walking encyclopedia of folk music, and he turned me on to lots of things that totally moved me. So I would find a way to deal with that on the piano. In fact, one of the bonus tracks on this record that will at some point be available is my piano version of an old traditional song called “I Truly Understand,” that I learned from the New Lost City Ramblers. Garcia did it with David Grisman a few years ago too. It’s also taking areas of music that have nothing to do with piano, and finding a way to deal with them on the piano, that has contributed to my style.

BRUCE-OLOGY

Selected albums as a leader: Levitate (Verve), Camp Meeting (Legacy), Halcyon Days (Sony), Big Swing Face (RCA), Spirit Trail (RCA), Hot House (RCA), Harbor Lights (RCA), A Night On The Town (RCA), Scenes From the Southside (RCA), The Way It Is (RCA).
Selected recording collaborations: Ricky Skaggs, Marian McPartland, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Don Henley.
Albums sold worldwide: Over 11 million.
Special guest on Levitate: Eric Clapton wailing on “Space Is the Place.”
Bruce Hornsby wrote the score for a musical? Yup. It’s called SCKBSTD and is directed by Kathleen Marshall of Chicago fame. For the latest, visit sckbstrd.blogspot.com
For more on Bruce: Visit brucehornsby.com and keyboardmag.com , where you’ll find a bonus video interview.

Bruce Hornsby’s Gear and Sounds

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To see Bruce Hornsby play solo is to experience one of the great American musical storytellers of our time. Whether solo or with his band the Noisemakers, Bruce can be found at a Steinway grand piano — sometimes a model D, sometimes a B. “Though personalities vary from piano to piano, I find the quality of Steinways to be very consistent,” he says. Last year, he hand-selected ten Steinway grands at the factory based on touch and tone; these became the Bruce Hornsby Signature Series. What piano tone does Bruce prefer? “Between mellow and bright,” is his answer. “Something that can be delicate, but ‘speak’ more aggressively if I need it to. You know, the piano sound associated with ’80s hits like ‘The Way It Is’ — that’s actually a lot brighter than what I like to play.” So does Bruce tour with a favorite piano? “Hell, no!” he laughs. “I have to make friends with a different one every night!”

A Moog Piano Bar MIDI sensor straddles the Steinway’s keyboard, and a Korg M1 sits on top. The Piano Bar triggers the “Warm Strings” patch from Korg’s Wavestation plug-in, hosted in Apple MainStage on a MacBook.

Numerous sounds are played from the M1. “I’ve always really been partial to the M1’s ‘Overture’ patch,” he explains. “It gives me some textural variety, and to my ears, has always managed to be ‘orchestral’ without sounding too synthetic, so I still use it.” Bruce’s engineer Wayne Pooley adds, “These days, we use the M1 just as a controller, and recreate two favorite M1 sounds — ‘Overture’ and ‘MultiBass’ — with the M1-Le plug-in from Korg’s Legacy Collection. Also hosted in MainStage are EVP88, which we use for the Wurly EP sound on songs from the album Big Swing Face, and a filter-swept organ sound in Native Instruments FM8 that we used on ‘Invisible’ from the new record. Bruce also used to work with [guitarist] Steve Kimock, and really loved his tone and wanted to be able to play it chordally. So, we sampled Steve, and have two patches that started out in an Akai sampler but now live in the EXS24 plug-in.”

For more on Bruce’s live setup, check out our exclusive backstage video at the top of this page.