If nothing else, Bruce Hornsby sure is versatile. There simply aren’t many pianists in this world who you can hear pop up on adult-contemporary radio, sit in with the Grateful Dead, soundtrack a Spike Lee movie and then launch into a composition originally written by Austrian experimental composer Arnold Schoenberg. There’s being multifaceted. And then there’s the distance between “Talk Of The Town” and “Caténaires”.
That truth couldn’t possibly be any more real than it is on the Williamsburg, Virginia, native’s latest double-disc set, Solo Concerts. Part show-off-y vanity project, part impressively obscure showcase, it’s definitely not suited for the casual fan, and depending on your level of admiration for the keys-smith, it might not even be of much interest to long-time followers. None of that is to suggest that any of these 20 songs (and one “entrance” track) are useless, of course. Actually, it’s quite the contrary.
Because from the opening notes of “Song E (Hymn In Eb)”, all the way to the final applause that fades as “Here We Are Again” concludes, the easiest thing to realize about any of this is that taken as one thing, it’s some of the hardest music you might be asked to digest today, tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. Calling it pretentious is too easy, but labeling it accessible isn’t accurate. These are the sounds of a piano player looking to entertain himself, even if you — or anyone around you — are so far from being entertained that you’d beg for just 15 seconds of “Harbor Lights”.
First, the good. The aforementioned “Song E” still resonates just the way it did when it first appeared on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 2012 film, Red Hook Summer. In fact, its grace levitates even more in the live setting, its sparse, gospel intonations amounting to a special kind of beauty. Just as well is the excerpt of Schoenberg’s “Piano Concerto”, which radiates charm and intrigue as the maestro plucks and pounds through a far-too-short minute-and-a-half.
However, as anyone who’s followed Hornsby through countless Changes and along the Spirit Trail already knows, the guy is at his best when he’s feeling slightly rambunctious. “Preacher In The Ring Part 1” boogies through some chops he picked up from his touring keyboard player J.T. Thomas and — along with some quality teasing of Anton Webern’s “Variationen 2” and Elliott Carter’s “Caténaires” — the result is more than seven minutes of the most fun these two discs offer (even though he comes back later in the set to provide a more realized performance of Carter’s 2006 swan song with both precision and ambition). “Paperboy”, from his musical SCKBSTD, and “Sticks And Stones” from Big Swing Face, then both earn similar points for slugging its way through ominous clouds and darkly tinted grooves.
Tenderness works well, too, whenever it decides to pop up. The arrangement of “Mandolin Rain” here is sparse and affecting, taking its cues more from the singer’s record with Ricky Skaggs than it does its original version in 1986. For such a powerfully sullen gem from nearly 30 years ago, the subtleties of the performance’s bareness in the modern day still feel fresh and honest, which is impressive at the very least and bordering on revelatory in its best light. Jimmy Martin’s “20/20 Vision” proves to be a nice touch as well, the 59-year-old intoning, “With eyes wide open, I laid in my bed/If it wasn’t for dying, I’d wish I was dead” with stoicism and blatancy. Hornsby will turn 60 in November and turning to these type of macabre songs in such a spare solo setting gains the tinniest bit of potency each time he sits behind a set of keys these days. Combined with “Night on the Town”, this particular performance is no exception.
Still, it wouldn’t be fair to ignore that part of what makes him so appealing in the live realm is the very band that’s nowhere to be found here. And that costs him, especially on the bluesy shade he throws on top of “The Valley Road”. Where it would be perfection to hear his typically stellar backing players help expand the new-found parameters of this 1988 Scenes From The Southside treasure, the take feels especially hollow, an attempt at revival that is just a few ingredients shy of developing a fully realized taste. “Life In the Psychotropics” is equally as frustrating, its hoppy approach wasted on the fact that no one is on stage to hop with him. By the time it makes it back to SCKBSTD, one can only hope that he calls in a few friends for assistance in a welcoming party.
More curious are his nods to classical tropes and an approach toward playing what he calls “two-handed independence”, which, as he notes in the release’s liner notes, is “an aspect of piano playing I always admired but never dealt with. Generally, I’ve felt it manifested itself in the development of left-hand ostinatos, patterns, rhythmic accompaniment for singing, and the right-hand soloing that I’ve always done, even on some of my hits.” (To understand what exactly it sounds like, just have a listen to the solo that creeps its way into Hornsby’s biggest smash, “The Way It Is”). These influences can be heard on the scattering “Where No One’s Mad” or the aforementioned “20/20 Vision / Night On The Town” double dip. It’s fascinating stuff for the piano enthusiasts or the snobby musicologists, but for the general listener? A lot of its impressiveness is lost.
Actually, the same can be said for the “La Grive Musicienne” excerpt or Ligeti’s “Etude 5” or Schoenberg’s “Gavotte and Variations”. It’s interesting and inspiring stuff, but it might struggle to hold the patience of what the typical “Circus On The Moon” fan would be willing to put up with. Instrumental. Angular. Soft. Heavily not-pop. Depending on your impression of Hornsby as either a Player or an Artist, your opinions on these two discs will fall somewhere between “surprisingly enlightening” or “being boring for bored’s sake”. Which is why the best way to describe it is probably what’s already been said: Part show-off-y vanity project, part impressively obscure showcase.
What the listener does with that information is entirely up to the listener itself. There are many, many things to value throughout all of Solo Concerts; there just aren’t a lot of hits to back those valuable moments up. Does that mean it’s a for-hardcore-fans-only type of set? The answer to that depends on your own personal level of cynicism and how willfully you wish to distribute as much. But does it mean that if nothing else, these 20 performances are sonic proof that Bruce Hornsby is so much more than just another artsy Virginia native who happens to get played on the radio sometimes and also loves roots music?
Well, of course. And after more than 40 years traveling the world and exploring each of the many sides that Solo Concerts so ambitiously profiles, that’s just the way it is. And more than likely, it’s also the way it’s going to be. At this point, he’s earned it.