“When I turned 40, I asked myself, ‘Am I just going to rest on what I’ve done in the past?’ says Bruce Hornsby. “I mean, most of my friends do that, frankly. Or was I going to try and take things to the next level and re-dedicatemyself to the piano, which meant spending three to four hours a day more than I was already spending at the instrument. I chose the latter.”
One listen to Hornsby’s new double album Solo Concerts and the fruits of his hard-fought labor are clear. The musician who shattered stylistic shackles with his genre-blurring hit “The Way It Is” some 30 years ago is doing it again, this time blending contemporary classical, pop, blues, and more into a sound all his own.
When we last spoke in 2009, you told me you’d become increasingly interested in 20th Century classical composers. On Solo Concerts, it seems as if those sonorities are becoming an even greater influence.
Well, I was interested in that music from the time I was 19 years old, when I attended Berklee. I used to go the Boston Public Library, where you could check out records just like you could books. I used that as a great excuse to immerse myself for free in a bunch of music that I had heard about, but had never really heard. And so I got really into Ives, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel and the French impressionists, and some things by Aaron Copland.
It’s true that in the last ten years, I got much more interested in this music, and that’s totally due to my 2003 signing with Columbia Records. I’d lasted 18 years and weathered seven presidential regimes at RCA, but the eighth president, Clive Davis, took one look at me and said, “You know what? I don’t think so.” And so he dropped me, but Donny Ienner at Columbia wanted to sign me right away. So I signed with them and put out five records in the span of about five years. One of the great perks of Columbia was that they let their artists basically raid their vault for free. I had them send me something like 177 CDs. Things like The Complete Webern conducted by Pierre Boulez, and almost all of pianist Glenn Gould’s records, where he was playing modern classical composers like Schoenberg, Webern, and Alban Berg—what they call the Second Viennese School and the twelve-tone era. That gradually led me into works by Ligeti, Carter, and Messiaen—so many of the composers that I’m throwing into the mix on Solo Concerts.
How did this influx of new composers affect your compositional work?
Getting deeply involved in this music on a playing level definitely started to influence my writing. When I started writing music for our play SCKBSTD (“Sick Bastard”), I used the experience of writing for musical theater as a license to sort of take things “out” on a harmonic level. Several of those songs are represented on this record, and they also happen to be some of my favorites. “Where No One’s Mad” is a perfect example. It’s a bi-tonal pop song. I also played Elliott Carter’s “Caténaires,” which is a perpetual motion piece that has that kind of acrid, astringent harmonic language that I’ve been enjoying putting into my own songwriting.
What was it that pushed you to start digging deeper into the piano?
The thing is, I was always moving forward. My first two records were of a certain sound that the masses know me for. But a perfect example of me pushing ahead was the album Harbor Lights, where I started using the jazz language much more. The same thing was true on Hot House, with all the great guests—Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, and on and on.
In November 1994 I turned 40, and that was the time for me to reflect on areas of the piano I hadn’t fully explored. Things like two-handed independence. [Previously] I’d hear Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts or even his band records, like the album Belonging with his European quartet. On it, the song “The Windup” has a fantastic little left-hand ostinato, and Keith has this ability to play incredibly freely in his right hand while continuing to nail that pattern in his left. So I’d try my hand at that and do my own half-assed version of it, thinking, “This takes a lot more time than I’m willing to commit.” Even if I’d wanted to, I’d had a full plate of gigs and appearances—all the things that coincide with a career that’s going well. But when I turned 40, I knew I wanted to dig deeper into the possibilities of the piano.
So in January of 1995, I called up two local groups: the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Special Olympics. I told them, “Hey, this is Bruce Hornsby and I’m going to do benefit concerts for you in May. How do these dates and these venues sound for the shows? All the money goes to you.” My idea was to use these gigs as something to shoot for. So I told my wife, “I know this is a drag for you,” because she thought I spent too much time in the studio already! But I said, “Just give me these next four months and we’ll talk about it when these gigs are over.” After the first concert for the Special Olympics, she came backstage with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m so glad you did this. It’s such a new level for you.” She got it right away.
Your new album Solo Concerts starts with “Song E (Hymn in Eb)” which seems to encapsulate much of your pianistic persona in two minutes. Can you tell us its story?
You mentioned the first song on the record, the Hymn. For years, people would say to me, “We know it’s you when we hear you. It’s fairly identifiable, but how would you describe what you do?” So I finally came up with this easy description, which is “Bill Evans meets the Hymnal,” because I like the old churchy chords with thirds in the bass and the bass moving around, but I also love the Bill Evans voicings that really come mostly from Ravel and some of the French impressionists I mentioned earlier. So “Bill Evans meets the Hymnal” totally describes that first piece. And then I take a left turn from there, but it all holds together because the second song “Preacher in the Ring,” along with all the modern classical intrusions on it, is about the snake-handling congregations of Appalachia.
You’ve been using the Moog Piano Bar to control soft synths from the piano and expand your sound palette beyond piano and voice, like on the new song “Invisible.” What is it about the combination of acoustic and electronic timbres that you find so alluring?
It all stems from the fact that I always hear an orchestra playing in my head. Not on all the songs, but often on ballads, like “Mandolin Rain,” “Here We Are Again,” and “Continents Drift.” If I’m playing bluesy, you’re not going to hear any MIDI, because I’m not hearing an orchestra in that stylistic setting. But “Invisible” is a perfect example of dialing in the Bob Moog. I’ve done a lot of solo concerts over the years where I’d show up in a new town to a piano supplied by Steinway. But it wasn’t MIDI’ed, so originally I’d put a Korg M1 on top, playing it with one hand and the piano with another. I used the sound “Overture,” which I came to find out that my old friend Bruce Springsteen used as well.
You play some familiar hits on Solo Concerts, but not as they were recorded originally.
Familiar sort of, but unfamiliar in other ways. “Mandolin Rain” for example, is like a totally different song. It has the same words and the same sort of melodic arc, but it’s in a minor key. It was born from a D minor jam back in 2002 and I’ve played it that way ever since. When I played it for Ricky Skaggs in 2005 when we were making our first bluegrass record together, he said, “Please, can we record this?” So the first recorded version of it was with him. To me, it’s a much deeper song in a minor key. I’m not against the original version—we still play it that way with the band and I like it a lot. But I prefer to play it this way for solo concerts.
What’s the story of the folk version of “The Valley Road”?
In 2011, I played the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, and along with my band set, they asked me to play a dulcimer set on their small singer-songwriter stage. As I was working on songs for the show, I started playing an old folk song called “Drunken Hiccups” that I’ve played for many years. During one section, there was a little melodic motif that inspired me to start singing, “Walk On, Walk On, Walk On” over it. That led me full force down the path to where I ended-up playing a 6/8, waltz-time, folk version of “The Valley Road,” which has become ours and the audience’s favorite version of that song. [The audience] will probably hear these versions and think, “What’s this? That’s not what I was expecting.” But maybe that’s my job: to play the unexpected.
Is that the secret to a long and interesting career? Never stop digging?
Never stop digging, but also, always be open to creation in the moment.Whether it’s with my band or solo, my whole approach has always been improvisational, and that goes all the way back to when I studied with our mutual piano teacher Vince Maggio at the University of Miami and got my degree in jazz. I don’t mean just on a solo level as a guy who can play through chord changes. That’s fine, but that’s really not the deepest improvisation. I’m talking about the organic process where the reinvention of songs happens, like the minor key version of “Mandolin Rain,” or the bluegrass, shuffle version of “The Valley Road,” which is akin to the way I used to play it with the Grateful Dead. Now there’s an even newer version of that song, which again illustrates how important it is be open in the moment.
So I guess I’d say, just have an open mind when you play. Frankly, being a little restless doesn’t hurt either. I’ve never been much for playing things the same way—that seems kind of like a creative prison. Try to stay out of that prison and continue to be open to new inventions.