When rock and pop stars make a foray into jazz it can risky proposition for them. While I'm sure all of them do it out of some sincere love for the music form, they can't expect to sell as many records as they're accustomed to and if they don't have the chops to pull it off, they wind up looking silly for trying it. But over the years, we've seen some of these guys managed to not embarrass themselves. Carlos Santana called in members of Miles Davis' Second Quintet and made an underrated fusion album in 1980. Steve Miller did a competent blues-jazz record back in '88 with Born 2B Blue. Randy Bachman showed off his Montgomery chops on an out of character release three years ago (and he did it again this year).
And then there's Bruce Hornsby. One of the rare rock pianists who emerged in the eighties, assembling mid-tempo folk-based tunes with which he combined tasty chops and an Appalachian timbre in his voice, with hits like "The Way It Is" and "The Valley Road." So what happened to that guy, anyway?
Turns out, Hornsby has had much more in his arsenal than churning out pleasant little Heartland-style pop ditties like "Mandolin Rain." In 1993, he stretched out with the varied Harbor Lights, bringing in everyone from Pat Metheny and Branford Marsalis to Phil Collins and Jerry Garcia. Since that record, he's gone in many different directions — even changing his singing voice — while always hinting at an affinity for jazz and improvisation. Camp Meeting, released last month, is where he finally goes headlong in that direction.
Unlike the other examples I mentioned, Hornsby neither dilutes his jazz with other influences nor plays it so congenially that it bores the listener after a few listens. There's a playfully, funky undercurrent in the whole proceedings; not the hard rocking of The Bad Plus, but more like a snappy jaunt. Hornsby's piano style is percussive, although gentler compared to, say, McCoy Tyner, swings mightily and is highly nuanced for a "rock 'n' roll" guy. Hornsby himself calls it "Bill Evans-meets-the-hymbook." And just in case you're wondering, he left the voice mike at home; this is all instrumental, baby.
Hornsby's earnestness is underscored by the guys he hired to round out his trio: Christian McBride (acoustic bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). In fact, the album is officially credited to all three, but it's clear this is Hornsby's project from the production credit, the contribution of originals and the generally relaxed style.
Hornsby brings a devil-may-care attitude to his first full-on foray into jazz and the album is all the more interesting because of it. I mean, it takes some balls for a major pop star to cover Ornette Coleman, but to start off the record that way? You gotta love a guy like that. He shows off a convincing proficiency in the art of harmolodics even when there's no recording of "Questions And Answers" by even Coleman himself to compare against.
The other jazz covers Hornsby tackles are all much better known, although Hornsby avoids giving these tunes run-of-the-mill treatments. For instance, check how McBride's bass follows Hornsby's main melodic line of Thelonius Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," only at certain notes. The Miles Davis tune "Solar," which was a favorite cover for Bill Evans, starts out with lyrical lines much like Evans', but as that all-world rhythm section enters the picture, it becomes a funky little riff, with DeJohentte and McBride adding little accents here and there to propel Hornsby further along.
John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" begins with the odd inclusion of a a sampled hip-hop rhythm but as the bop workout commences, it become apparent that it fits in like a glove. And DeJohnette seems to be having fun playing around it at fade-out time.
Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" (which segues into Hornsby's own "Chant Song"), is one cover that doesn't deviate all that much from the original, but the festive, Latin-tinged composition still fits Hornsby's playing style well.
Keith Jarrett's "Death And The Flower" is one of only two ballads of this set. It's kind of appropriate that Hornsby picks a Jarrett tune, given his debt to Keith's playing style (not to mention that he borrowed Jarrett's drummer for these sessions). Hornsby's approach is introspective as the song's composer would have it, if not as quite as masterful. "We'll Be Together Again," is another soft number, rendered much the same way.
The originals in the set sit alongside these well-chosen covers quite nicely. The title cut is a delightful vamp on which Hornsby casually rides over DeJohnette's creole shuffle without once succumbing to the temptation to hot-dog it. McBride states the theme in the upper register while Bruce covers it down low. "Charlie, Woody And You" combines a solidly blues-based bass line with dissonant piano chords that somehow stays tethered to the simple chord progression.
I wish someone had "blindfold tested" me with this album to make me guess who's record this is, much as McBride and DeJohnette had done to others. But honestly, I don't think that not knowing whose record this is would have affected my enthusiasm over it much, if at all. OK, so Bruce Hornsby won't ever be mentioned alongside his influences in the realm of jazz piano, but he proved here that he's plenty good enough to hang with the big dogs and lay down a set of tracks that maintains some originality while being a whole lot of fun. The tall guy who'd rather gig as a sideman for the Grateful Dead than place hits in the Top Twenty opens his mind again and gives whatever of his original audience is still hanging around more food for open souls.