Piano men celebrated on a worldwide scale are few and far between. The most versatile instrument of all, the piano conjures thunderous lows and twinkling highs, tugging at every string of the heart. Still, most frontmen stand behind a guitar and its strap. Of the few, pop-culture icons such as Elton John, Stevie Wonde, and Billy Joel offer ballads and anthems in every range of emotion, each surging with ample passion in every performance. Among them stands another key player: Bruce Hornsby.
Responsible for penning the political stand in Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” the sad softness of “Mandolin Rain,” and the catchy hit “Every Little Kiss,” Hornsby makes his own mark on music’s finest. “The Way It Is” has already proven timeless and catchy; the seemingly immortal introduction, its strong moral statement, and the enthralling musicianship led to the track’s sampling by Tupac Shakur, E-40, Snoop Dogg, and others. Such selections showcase the far-reaching scale of Hornsby’s lyricism and instrumentation.
Hornsby’s music took flight in 1986 when “The Way It Is” reached the number-one spot on the charts, while in 1987 his act, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, garnered the Grammy for Best New Artist. Yet, his career as a composer began in the early ‘80s as he and his brother, John, spent three years writing for 20th Century Fox.
Pop success may be what defines America’s view of Hornsby, but it is not what expounds him as a musician. A former member of the Grateful Dead, performer with Ricky Skaggs, and instrumental in the jazz produced by The Bruce Hornsby Trio, the musician never settles into a formula that guarantees popular prosperity. Instead, he pursues his own passion.
“Well, I’m not that famous, for starters,” Hornsby humbly remarks to encore. “What happened to us in 1986, and for the next five years afterward, was a wonderful accident; BBC Radio One in London just started playing ‘The Way It Is,’ and it just worked on the air and became a hit around the world. So, we caught this wave and rode it through five more hits, at least in the States, along with other songs of mine that became hits for others and collaborations like ‘The End of the Innocence’ with Don Henley. And all that was fantastic, but it was never what I was really about. I’ve just been interested in growing and evolving, and improving musically, as a writer, player and singer through the years. Also, I’ve always been interested in working with amazing musicians (wouldn’t anyone be?), and have been so fortunate to get so many calls to do that through the years.”
As Hornsby’s musical treasury expands through each new project, so does his creativity as a composer. From his first solo foray, a 1993 album called “Harbor Lights,” and through his third, “Spirit Trail,” Hornsby experiments with complex skills across a plethora of genres. The artist visibly follows his own style, employs dissonance, and draws on lessons learned while obtaining a music degree from the University of Miami. He doesn’t follow trends.
“Some people are adventurous in their taste in music, and are ‘ready to receive’ something more challenging and atypical (and in my case, atonal!),” he describes. “Most listeners are not interested, which I understand completely, but I can’t use that as a basic fact of life that curtails and suppresses my interest in new areas of expression. So I don’t let it stop me!”
In Hornsby’s creations for others—or for completely separate projects, such as his musical, “SCKBSTD”—the same mantra applies. “To me, it’s all related,” he confirms, “because whether I’m composing for a Spike Lee film, or a song for a Bobcat Goldthwait movie, or our musical, or writing for my own artistic trip, the goal is the same: to make music that moves me in some way.”
Currently Hornsby continues to pull on his fascination with note combinations that are ambitious and arousing. “Oddly enough, these days (and for many years now), I’m drawn to two extremely disparate styles of music: modern classical music, that has a very advanced harmonic sensibility; and the most basic traditional and old-time music—folk, blues, gospel and on and on,” he explains. “Maybe when the dissonance wears on me, I go to the basic and simple forms, and when that gets a little old, I go back to the crazy, weird and strange.”
On Friday, August 2nd, Hornsby will perform with his touring band, The Noisemakers, at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. Many members of the group have played with Hornsby for over a decade.
“This band has been together for a really long time,” the artist tells. “J.T. Thomas (organ) has been with me for 23 years; his tenure reaches back into the old ‘Range’ days. Bobby Read (reeds) hits the 20-year mark this year; JV Collier (bass), 19 years; Doug Derryberry (guitar), 15; and the ‘rookie’ of the group, the great Sonny Emory (drums), a mere 11 years. We know each other musically really well, which makes spontaneity and a free-wheeling approach to playing music very natural and easy.”
A mentally connected band is essential for Hornsby’s live performances, as he isn’t big on rehearsing. Likewise, he extracts energy from the audience to guide the shows.
“I’m a pretty lame leader in that respect,” he jokes. “We mostly rehearse only if there are new songs to learn, or if we decide to revisit old songs that haven’t been played in years. Set lists don’t work well for me, because often what comes up next on the list you’ve made feels like the wrong thing to play at that moment in the concert.”
For fans of Bruce Hornsby and the Range, hearing the musician play the tracks which truly inspire him—music from the latter portion of his nearly three-decade career—should prove a sonic trip of a lifetime. There is more to Hornsby than America knows best, and there is plenty left to be discovered as the piano man forges on.
Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers
Presented by 98.3 FM The Penguin
Friday, August 2nd
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
Gates, 6 p.m.; show, 7 p.m.
$40 in advance; $47 day of
Children 12 and under, free