Q&A with ‘lifetime music student’ Bruce Hornsby | ParkRecord.com

Q&A with ‘lifetime music student’ Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby continues to seek new musical expressions. The Grammy Award-winning pianist, who has performed with the Grateful Dead, Ricky Skaggs and Christian McBride, will play a St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights concert on Thursday at City Park.
Photo by Megan Holmes

The Park City Institute will present Bruce Hornsby as part of the St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 16, at City Park. Tickets are $49 and $89. They can be purchased by visiting www.bigstarsbrightnightsconcerts.org.

Multi Grammy Award-winning pianist Bruce Hornsby is a musical chameleon.

He is known for his pop radio hits “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain,” and he has collaborated with singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles’ Don Henley, bluegrass musician and producer Ricky Skaggs, the Grateful Dead and jazz greats Pat Metheny and Branford Marsalis.

He’s also worked with filmmaker Spike Lee on the score for the film “Clockers” and collaborated with singer Chaka Khan on a song for Lee’s film “She’s Gotta Have It.”

“I’m a lifetime music student, always looking for new inspiration and trying to improve, grow and broaden my abilities and range, and I feel that I owe my audience what I’m most passionate about at the time,” Hornsby said in an email. “That said, I try to also be kind to “soft-core” fans, those who come to hear six songs from 1986-90. I generally play anywhere from three to six of those songs every night in some shape or form.”

I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regards to new music and musical areas to explore…”Bruce Hornsby,multi-Grammy Award-winning musician and bandleader

Park City will get a chance to see Hornsby in action when he plays on Thursday, Aug. 16, at City Park.

The Park Record caught up with Hornsby via email a couple of weeks ago. The text of the conversation follows:

Park Record: Will the Park City show display different facets of your career with present-day arrangements on older songs?

Bruce Hornsby: I “re-invent my classics” all the time. I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regards to new music and musical areas to explore. I’m an improviser, and am not really interested in replicating old records or repeating old ideas. Locals can expect a loose, spontaneous concert that involves an attempt at deep musicianship, with a few laughs thrown in for emotional balance.

P.R: When you do rearrange a song like “Mandolin Rain,” what types of things do you latch onto to make it more interesting for you to play?

B.H.: I never set out to intentionally reinvent an old song; the reinventions usually occur spontaneously, in the live moment, and the best ones stay around through the years.

P.R.: Instead of just dabbling in different musical styles and genres, you are known to go in full force. How does that type of commitment satisfy your artistic self?

B.H.: With respect to the two major styles that I’ve dealt with apart from my singer-songwriter efforts (and those styles are bluegrass and jazz), I took a deep dive after many years of dabbling in those musical areas. I studied jazz music in college intensely, and had several brief forays into the bluegrass world through the years starting with my collaboration with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Bernie Leadon and Roy Huskey Jr. on the “Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol. II” record. Fans badgered me for years to make a jazz record and a bluegrass record, and I finally got around to both of them around the same time, with both records released in 2007. I’m referring to the first “Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby” record and the trio record (“Camp Meeting”) with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette; two records of which I’m very proud.

P.R.: What type of musical exploration led you to the Appalachian dulcimer and recording of your most recent album, “Rehab Reunion?”

B.H.: This record was made for a very natural reason. I had been playing the dulcimer more and more, on our live shows where for the last seven years we’ve featured a stripped-down acoustic dulcimer-based section in our shows, one that has become increasingly popular. I started writing more songs on the instrument, we were playing them live to great response, and it became clear that this record needed to be made. Certainly on an ability level this record could have been made at any time; I’ve always been terrible at playing the dulcimer, and I still am.

P.R.: When you work with guest artists, in this album’s case Mavis Staples and Justin Vernon, how do those types of collaborations influence your music writing?

B.H.: In those two instances the songs were written before I asked these two amazing people to guest on them. I just played with Mavis at the Kennedy Center in (Washington) D.C., and we performed “Celestial Railroad” together for the first time — what a great time. And I’ve been hooking up with Justin here and there for the past year; I played Coachella with him last year as a guest, sat in with him on two solo concerts last December in Virginia, and played a gig with him at his Oxbow Motel in Eau Claire, Wisconsin a few months ago. We’ve also been working on some new music together; what a killer he is.

P.R.: On the other hand, how has your performance experience with other artists, such as Ricky Skaggs, the Grateful Dead, the Range and the Noisemakers influenced your playing, as opposed to songwriting?

B.H.: I wouldn’t trade my time with the Dead for anything. It was a truly singular and often transcendent experience for me. Any time you spend that much time around a musical scene as vast and deep as the Dead world, it can’t help but have an influence. I loved them as writers, so that was an influence; I loved their loose approach, so that was another influence (although having been a jazz major at University of Miami, I was always game for winging it and improvising), and the whole “be kind” philosophy that permeated their scene was another beautiful influence.

P.R.: How does working with artists from other mediums, such as filmmaker Spike Lee, opened up your creativity?

B.H.: One of my deepest collaborations through the years has been my working relationship with Spike Lee, for the last 26 years. For the last ten I’ve been scoring films for him, and during that time I’ve probably written 190 different musical cues. Some of those cues have sounded like potential songs to me, and I’ve expanded several of them into new songs. So that has very clearly opened up my songwriting, mostly in the last two years. Writing “on assignment” forces one to create, and so this has been a great catalyst for me.

P.R.: How was working on “She’s Gotta Have It” expressively different than working on “Clockers?’

B.H.: Well, I guess a very obvious difference — the assignments or requests were totally different. For “Clockers” Spike asked for an end-title song, and Chaka (Khan) and I wrote and performed “Love Me Still” for the film. For “SGHI” the assignment was the full film score, so that involved many composed instrumental pieces, film cues.

P.R.: Is there any musical style or type of project you haven’t done that you would like to do?

B.H.: I’ve been moving into writing songs influenced by modern, atonal, harmonically challenging, more dissonant classical music, much to the chagrin of most of my fans — but not all.

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