The pop pianist makes an honest-to-goodness jazz album. And it's honest-to-goodness good.
Camp Meeting is a challenging assignment for Bruce Hornsby fans. Are you ready for your man to make a full album of jazz trio music that is wholly instrumental, challenging, progressive, and unflinchingly serious? It is an equal challenge for jazz fans -- are you ready to take seriously a jazz pianist whose career has been based on pleasant gospel-pop and some jams with the Grateful Dead?
Heard in the context of Hornsby's successful career as a pop singer-songwriter, Camp Meeting is more than a departure. Though Hornsby's music has always been informed by his training in jazz (at Berklee and the University of Miami where, no doubt, he played his share of Monk and Bill Evans), this jazz flavor has been the equivalent of a dash of Old Bay season on some fries -- zesty but not exactly gourmet stuff. Camp Meeting, however, is full immersion. Not a gimmick record, not a pop record with a guest solo from Branford Marsalis, not a set of "American Songbook" covers by a pop star -- nope. This is a set of modern classics and originals plopping the pianist in the midst of a free-playing jazz trio. It is jazz sink-or-swim. In the deep end. With waves.
Hornsby can swim.
Fans of Hornsby's pop work may or may not like Camp Meeting, depending on their taste for straight modern jazz. But they can hold their heads high when questions of the piano man's chops are raised. Jazz fans may have a harder time facing the fact that a musician not steeped in the music for the last 20 years can acquit himself this well on short notice. But what impresses most about Camp Meeting is not Hornsby's pianism. (He is a reasonably fluid player with some harmonic daring and flair for rhythmic excitement, but he is not to be confused with top echelon pianists such as Jason Moran or Ethan Iverson, much less obvious role models such as Keith Jarrett.) Rather, the vision for this record is strong. Hornsby and his band mates -- Christian McBride on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums -- have created a trio sound in line with recent work by the Bad Plus and the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. While steeped in the harmony and interactive jazz vocabulary of the jazz trio, this music makes a bid for how jazz can organically incorporate a certain energy and rhythmic feeling from rock.
The best work on Camp Meeting is bracing and original. "Charlie, Woody 'n' You" is a Hornsby tune that incorporates the clusterific harmonies of Charles Ives into a blues anchored in a grooving bass line. McBride and DeJohnette ground the proceedings, allowing Hornsby to swing through the air on some fairly wild trapeze. Rather than just playing the blues licks natural to a rock musician, Hornsby stays within the angular vocabulary of the tune itself, playing jagged lines that are both playful and ripping. McBride's solo is even more "out", exploiting sonic textures of the acoustic bass (bowing close to the bridge, slapping strings against the fingerboard) that aren't heard much in "straight ahead" playing.
The title song begins with an electronic percussion track over which Hornsby plays a series of enticingly voiced chords -- one part McCoy Tyner and another part modern classical player. Hornsby's improvisation alternates flowing, chromatic lines with locked-hand passages that sound half-gospel/half-Sondheim. When the tune, the pianist's own, flips into a unison line between McBride's electric bass and Hornsby's left hand, you get just a glimpse of the pop-tunesmith at work. Without being compromised in any way, the performance suggests a way that jazz might become enticing to a non-jazz fan.
A similar use of electronic percussion is featured on both Ornette Coleman's "Questions and Answers" (never before recorded, apparently) and Coltrane's "Giant Steps". The Coleman tune suits the band -- skittering and fragmentary, it covers Hornsby's one obvious limitation as a jazz pianist, which is his weakness at building logical melodic improvisations across the bar lines and complex chord patterns. "Giant Steps" swings very well, but there is a sense that Hornsby is just barely surviving the harmonic steeplechase, running licks on the chords without always connecting them logically. McBride, with no technical or musical limitations in sight, plays a solo that defines what Hornsby can't yet do as a jazz player. But this quibble is largely academic -- this trio's "Giant Steps" starts with a cool chiming version of the melody, reharmonized interestingly, then rips until the melody returns, completely swung over DeJohnette's daring splashes.
In other places, the trio finds other ways to visit jazz history with its own identity intact. "We'll Be Together Again" would seem to be an invitation for Hornsby to get his Bill Evans on, but instead he attacks it with a gorgeous set of down home harmonies, solo, then brings the band in over a semi-stride feeling that is reminiscent of Errol Garner. Miles Davis's "Solar" is given a similar treatment -- solo piano leading to an atypical feel -- an off-kilter funk that DeJohnette plays simply at first and then with an increasing sense of architecture. "Celia", by Bud Powell, is funkier still, starting with just a fragment of the melody alternated with gospel chords then building to a full reading of the complex bop line. It's no surprise, then, when the trio digs Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" through a second-line lens, or when Bud's "Un Poco Loco" is stretched out for almost eight minutes over a Latin groove that highlights DeJohnette's unique gift for the pocket.
If McBride and DeJohnette had any doubt about this project going in (and there is every reason to believe that they were enthusiastic about it), that doubt surely vanished. The drummer is given free reign to play with the full range of his polyrhythmic creativity. The sound of the drums and, particularly, the acoustic bass is outstanding throughout. The duet on Keith Jarrett's "Death and the Flower" gives the piano plenty of room to chime and captures the bass sound with unusual clarity and atmosphere. The written bass line moves against the melody with a classical intelligence and dramatic logic. Throughout, the trio sound is balanced and integrated.
As a thoroughgoing jazz snob on some days, I have to admit that I was fully ready to be uppity about Camp Meeting. Even now, 95% won over, I sometimes hear Hornsby as a jazz amateur with impeccable support. On his own "Stacked Marcy Possum", he is essentially playing in his own bag with jazz musician support -- sort of the way Sting sounded on his first solo album. (This track also contains a series of studio edits that jar without sounding knowingly hip -- they just sound like sloppy editing.)
But, mostly, Camp Meeting convinces. It is only rarely a jazz take on Hornsby's usual music, and it never feels like an example of a pop musician making a cheap grab for legitimacy or nostalgia-dollars. Why did Hornsby do it? Because he obviously loves jazz, loves playing jazz, and can do it at a high level in the face of pre-existing skepticism.
And, if love, ability, and perseverance were not enough, there is also the fact that this group has something to say about widening slightly the sound of jazz trio playing -- an accomplishment to be wished for but hardly expected from the likes of Bruce Hornsby. Incorporating fresh sounds into a jazz repertoire, Camp Meeting passes -- indeed, surpasses -- muster as a serious piece of art. It's a reason to rejoice again the richness of jazz's intersection with popular music.