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.