Bruce Hornsby: The Master of Levitation
"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 and Branford Marsalis 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."
Going from being relatively unknown to overnight stardom has both its advantages and disadvantages as Hornsby reflects on "The Way It Is," the breakout hit song that dealt with real-life social themes of classicism and racism, but also the possibility for change.
"I wasn't prepared for it at all. It broke in England out of the blue," he said. "A DJ on BBC radio heard it, and put it on the air and off it went. So it broke in England, then in Holland, the rest of the world and then in the United States. So we went from doing fine in America; selling about 100,000 records, before this happened. Our record had been out for about four months in the U.S. when this occurred in the U.K. and then it exploded and we had to become headliners on nine songs. So that was the full adult way of learning how to become a celebrity, or a well known music person. As I've always said, it was the least enjoyable year I've had because we became the new cash cow at RCA and they were milking the crap out of us. Well, mostly me. So I was new to it. I didn't know how to say no, so they just ran me into the ground. By the time we won the Grammy, my skin tone was green. It was kind of a drag, in fact a complete drag, but also an amazing phenomenon to occur on your first record."
More than just a top singles phenomenon, the song's influence (in many ways) still reverberates.
"Well, I didn't realize the impact it would have, positive or negative," Hornsby said. "I got some nasty letters from people saying, 'You rich rock stars don't know what its like to live next to these people who don't clean up their yard and leave crap everywhere, and lower our property value.' I've become really involved through the years with the National Fair Housing Alliance that deals with these problems, so I know firsthand how prejudice can pervade.
"But on a positive note, a lot of people were moved by the song," he added. "I especially loved the rap and hip hop versions, such as E-40's, and Tupac Shakur's rendition entitled 'Changes,' which many people know. Wyclef Jean also did a version a year or two ago, so that's been enjoyable and fulfilling for me also."
It seems the song is now more prophetic with the election of President Barack Obama, Hornsby agrees.
"Well, right, and in Tupac's version (recorded in the 1990s) he talked about being ready for a black president and now that it has come to pass, I find it to be a beautiful situation," he said.
With a tentative debut in the fall of 2010, Hornsby delves into theater with SCKBSTD, his first musical score with original music and story based on the troubles created when a stranger arrives in a small Virginia town.
"Yeah, it's really called Sick Bastard," Hornsby laughs. Eight of the twelve songs on Levitate are based from the musical. One of the songs is "Paperboy," and gives a hint into the production's curious personality.