Bruce Hornsby‘s adventurous Solo Concerts stretches (“Mandolin Rain”) and shatters (“Where No One’s Mad”) musical boundaries. The Virginia native’s piano work astonishes throughout with an innovative playing style he calls “two-handed independence.”
“In 1995, I turned 40,” Hornsby says. “I thought, what do I want to do? Just sail off into the sunset? Rest on my laurels and play the same way the rest of my life? Do I want to ramp it up a notch and deal with some areas of virtuosic piano that I’d never explored? I chose the latter.”
CMT Edge spoke with the hit songwriter (“The Way It Is”) and former Grateful Dead band member about his unique approach to the piano, early songwriting influences and the stunning new collection.
CMT Edge: Let’s start here and work back: Have you mastered the piano?
Hornsby: Oh, hell no. I still hear things on this record where I go, “I’m still not doing that very well.” So, no, no, no. The piano is so vast that you could spend two lifetimes and never feel like you’ve mastered it, especially if you get into classical music from Bach to Elliott Carter. It’s so formidable in a beautiful way. I think the first line in my liner notes says it best: “Dedicating yourself to the pursuit of the unattainable is a beautiful way to live your life.”
Explain “two-handed independence.”
Probably my favorite pianist is the great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, one of the few truly transcendent musicians of the last 40, 50 years. On his solo records, he set up this left hand ostinato pattern, and he’d solo over top of it with his right hand. It sounded like two people playing because he was so free rhythmically, so solid in his left hand and free in his right, a real split-brain approach, the old “pat your head and rub your tummy” on a way deeper level. Two-handed independence is my attempt at deep musicianship, an attempt at finding a place for adventurous music in the popular song world.
The songs certainly sound challenging.
I’d say this record’s challenging in some ways but it’s also really basic in others. A lot of the songs are using real basic, traditional American forms. The first song is like straight out of a hymnal. The second is a boogie woogie on the left hand and soloing over top of that with my right. Then there’s a very rhythmic vibe, a blues shuffle. There’s some New Orleans feel, a groove straight out of the Dr. John/Professor Longhair tradition. So, a lot is very basic but with a different way of playing.
Sure, but I took classical piano for 15 years and can’t imagine playing “Where No One’s Mad.”
That’s the height of the independence exercise because I have to sing while playing something completely different with each hand. That’s a song from the musical SCKBSTD that we’ve been developing for several years now. It’s influenced by two great classical composers, Elliott Carter and Gyorgy Ligeti. In fact, I play [Carter’s] “Catenaires” right before “Where No One’s Mad” to show where the musical information in that song came from.
So, “Where No One’s Mad” is really influenced by that modern classical harmony, a bitonal piece where the right hand is in C and the left hand is F-sharp, the tritone “devil’s interval.” I know I’m talking highbrow silliness here, but it’s the only way I can explain this and where it’s coming from. That song’s a very demanding split-brain piece, but great fun if you can pull it off. It took me a while to get it together.
Explain how you teach yourself to sing and play three different parts.
It’s just repetition, man. You have to do it. I would suggest if anyone would like to start this, you have to start slowly. Everybody wants to run before they can walk, before they can crawl. You have to start by crawling. Everything I work up, I start at a really slow tempo and gradually build it up from there. If you start slow, you build a foundation and you’ll play it much more solidly when you get it up to the proper tempo. It’s about lots of practice, lots of being terrible before you can be good. (laughs)
Do you think you risk flying over heads with such complex arrangements?
That’s the tricky challenge here: To use this information but remain accessible, at least to the adventurous popular music listeners. There are popular music listeners out there who have adventurous spirits and are interested in not hearing the same thing over and over again for the rest of their lives. I guess I’m playing to that small audience. I’m ever hopeful that it’ll be a larger audience. (laughs)
Describe what you took away from performing with the Grateful Dead in the early ’90s.
Look, I got my degree in jazz music. That really broadened my horizons because I was just a guy from small-town Virginia. I was always about improvising, and I played in my brother’s Grateful Dead cover band in college, so I was fairly knowledgeable about the Dead’s music and I really liked it. I liked the open approach with lots of sections for improvising. So, when I started playing with them it’s not that I learned so much as a player. I was mostly inspired by them as songwriters.
Explain their greatest strengths as songwriters.
Well, I can mostly speak to the Jerry Garcia–Robert Hunter music because that speaks to me the most. I feel the songs are really simple, and they could’ve been written hundreds of years ago. They sound like old folk songs and those really speak to me.
In fact, on this record, the recreation of “Mandolin Rain” as a minor key song is like a folk or bluegrass version. That version speaks to me deeply and could’ve been written a hundred years ago, as opposed to the original hit version. I still like that version and play it with my band, but this feels a little deeper to me. It comes from a deeper place like the Garcia-Hunter songs. They’re just timeless.