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Interviews

Bruce Hornsby: The Master of Levitation

By Published: October 27, 2009
And then there's the infectious "Prairie Dog Town." In what first appears to be an ethological study of cuddly grassland animals, turns into what may be a humorous bite on community boundaries and conflicts.


Jack DeJohnette, Bruce Hornsby and Christian McBride

"It's basically your 'can't judge a book by its cover' song," Hornsby explained. "These prairie dogs look so nice and so cute and sort of huggable, but if you get next to them they'll bite your ass. They're nasty little creatures actually, so I used that as a metaphor for some other situations."

This food for thought is disclosed in this section of the song's verse:

Disregard the great ethical truths

It's the collective life of the herd for you.

Closed society, no open door policy

Collectivist secret ideology




To whom are the lyrics referring to? It's clearly left to interpretation, Hornsby laughs. "That's right—I'll leave it to the listener," he said. "Whoever they think I'm talking about, that's who it is."

Hornsby's thought ballads continue to be memorable, whether dealing with the topic of introspection found in "Invisible" or the deeply personal, "Continental Drift," which contains a guitar solo by his nephew R.S. Hornsby, who tragically died in an automobile accident shortly after the recording. "He was a beautiful player," Hornsby said. "We miss him so much."

The making of the song "Levitate" is a tale within itself. It emerged from a film score that Hornsby was writing for filmmaker Spike Lee's Kobe Doin' Work, a documentary on NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant.

"My producer, Tony Berg, was badgering me for months," Hornsby said. "He knew I was doing the score for the Spike Lee movie, and he was saying, 'You gotta play this song for Spike, he'll love it.' Sure enough, I finally got around to playing it for Spike and he called me and said, 'Levitate, I gotta have it.' And so lyrically, it's a song inspired by the young ballers in the hood. While everyone else is fooling around, these guys are putting in the work, looking for the ecstatic state, the feeling of excelling in something, you know. The state of levitation figuratively speaking, and so that's what the song is about. It seemed to work really well, lyrically and musically, for Spike. But it was a song originally for this record."

While most players began learning music on the piano, Hornsby's first instrument was surprisingly not on the keys.

"Well no, I played guitar, like lots of kids in The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
era," Hornsby said. "I had a band in the sixth grade playing junior high dances and Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones

band/orchestra
songs and I was more of a jock. But I got more into the piano at around age 17. I got really intense about it, and so I kind of knew about a year into this immersion that I wanted to do this for a living but I didn't think that I was good enough without being laughed at by my family. Sure enough when I first brought it up, there was definitely some resistance to the idea. But I think I knew that I was gonna do this my first year of college.

"I went to a real college, quote unquote, not a music school," he added. "I went to the University of Richmond for a year and that was when I said, 'You know what, I don't care what people say, this isn't for me, I have to cast my lot with the 'musos.' And I did that the next year. Actually, the very next summer I went to Berklee College of Music for two semesters and then transferred to the University of Miami, where I really got it together. I was playing five or six hours a day; playing at night, putting myself through school because my Dad wasn't so sure about the music thing, but that was good for me because I played all sorts of gigs from disco bands to piano bars, country club functions, Bar Mitzvahs and wedding receptions. It was a good experience."

This pianistic baptism into diverse settings most certainly paid off, rewarding Hornsby not only a wealth of experiences but also an encyclopedic base in the creation of his own voice. But who are some of his influences?

"Well, in the past it was a pretty simple progression of influences," he said. "I started playing the piano because of Elton John
Elton John
Elton John
b.1946
piano
and Leon Russell
Leon Russell
Leon Russell
b.1942
piano
. Then I got into Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
and Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
from reading about them and then hearing their records and being completely blown away. Then I got into Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
and Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
and on and on. Later I got into people like Dr. John
Dr. John
Dr. John
b.1940
piano
and Otis Spann
Otis Spann
Otis Spann
1930 - 1970
piano
and Professor Longhair
Professor Longhair
Professor Longhair
1918 - 1980
piano
and New Orleans blues.

"But for the past several years I've been interested in the modern classical idiom, 20th and 21st century music: names such as Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, the Second Viennese School, Twelve-tone composers, Schoenberg, Weber and Berg, and Elliott Carter, the great composer who still is with us at age 101, and the great French composer Olivier Messiaen," Hornsby said. "Those are some of the people whose music I regularly force feed my audience. And so you're starting to hear a little bit of that, a little more chromatic musical language in the songs, and there's two songs on Levitate, 'Paperboy' and 'Michael Raphael,' which deal in more chromatic, melodic language and chordal usage, too. So those are the recent influences that people hope I'd stop being influenced by; because it's not the people's music, it's not the language of the people but it's spoken to me for years."

Popular songs like "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain" may have inspired the first "air piano" solos by Top 40 music fans who appreciated Hornsby's exemplary skills on the ivories. Yet throughout his many recordings and concerts, he's shown an acute aptitude in jazz improvisation, whether playing solo piano, swinging heartily with Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
and Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
b.1960
saxophone
on the four-CD/one-DVD box set Intersections [1985-2005] (Legacy Recordings, 2006), and delivering the critically- acclaimed trio session Camp Meeting (Legacy Recordings, 2007). When complimented on his impressive chops on that release, Hornsby respectfully answers, "Compared to who? I tried to find a reason to make the record stylistically my own, a way to play the music that didn't sound like other players. It'd be really easy to make my recording sound like Bill Evans or Chick Corea, but I didn't want to do that. So when Jack (DeJohnette) and Christian (McBride), who'd been badgering me through the years to do the recording, came to the studio, they remarked on how fresh the versions were of the standards, and of course my own songs. So that was the reason for it; I'm pretty sure we're gonna do it again."


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