Bruce Hornsby, the music world’s equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going and going. On top of last summer’s exceptional career-spanning 4-CD box set, Intersections (which, naturally, included a couple of previously unreleased nuggets from his tenure with the Dead—a live version of “The Valley Road” and, on the accompanying DVD disc, a great version of “Ramble On Rose”), he’s now got a bluegrass album under his belt, a collaboration called Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby.
The two have known each other for a number of years and played together a few times, including a recording of the song “Darling Cory” for a Bill Monroe tribute album. Ricky Skaggs, a stringed music master of the highest order, told Mix magazine writer David Farinella, “Bruce had been doing that song in his show a little bit, so we did a bluegrass treatment and it was so much fun. It had this wonderful mixture of Bill Evans’ chord structure and bluegrass Bill Monroe. It had what we call ‘stank’ about it. It came together so quick, we looked at each other and I said, ‘Man, we gotta do more of this, maybe do a whole album. Would you be up for that?’”
A while later, Hornsby got together with Skaggs and his fine band, Kentucky Thunder—Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Paul Brewster (tenor vocals and rhythm guitar), Mark Fain (bass), Jim Mills (banjo), Cody Kilby (lead guitar) and Darrin Vincent (baritone vocals and rhythm guitar)—at Skaggs’ Hendersonville, Tenn. home studio to lay down tracks for the album. The CD contains a mix of new and old tunes, covers and originals. There are fresh takes on Bruce’s “Mandolin Rain” and “A Night on the Town,” and a most unexpected cover: Rick James’ “Super Freak,” cut bluegrass style. Most of the album was cut live in the studio, with everyone playing together, and then Bruce did some vocal and minor overdub work at his home studio in Williamsburg, Virginia.
When I reached Bruce at his home to ask him a few questions about the album, he noted, “It’s bluegrass-tinged, no doubt, but it’s also pushing it in certain ways. Like, I wrote a new tune called ‘Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues’ that is a bluegrass tune in 5/4. We also recorded two Roscoe Holcomb songs that Ricky sang. He was one of the great old-time traditional banjo players/singers. And that’s not your basic bouncy bluegrass. It’s very hard music in the sense there’s nothing pretty about it: ‘Across the Rocky Mountains’ is one chord throughout the whole song, but it’s a real highlight.”
I asked him about the challenge of fitting his big, distinctive piano style in with a bluegrass group: “Ricky and others have said through the years that the way I play piano reminds them of the banjo in bluegrass, so sometimes when I play, the piano takes on some of that role, I guess. It really wasn’t too difficult to fit in. You just have to be careful to not play too much left hand or be too busy. It’s real easy for a piano in any music to take over and obliterate everything else and sound terrible,” he laughs. “It’s the big mid-range force. In fact, we always used to joke that my band should have been called Bruce Hornsby & the Mid-range, with all that piano and guitar—it was sonic hell for an engineer.”
…and Busier Still
In addition to upcoming dates with Ricky Skaggs, shows with his own band, the Noisemakers, and solo piano concerts, Bruce has launched a dream project of his that’s been in the works for some time: A jazz trio matching Hornsby with two of the greatest improvising musicians on the planet: Jack DeJohnette, the master drummer who’s been part of some of the most important groups of the past 40 years (including the Charles Lloyd quartet of the 1960s, Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric bands of the early ’70s and, for much of the past two decades, the Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette trio); and Christian McBride, whose recordings and live performances with Joshua Redman, Wallace Roney, Betty Carter, McCoy Tyner and many others, in addition to his own solo projects, have made him one of the most acclaimed bassists of his generation. The trio has recorded an album, Camp Meeting, to be released by Sony/Legacy on August 7th, but decided to take the music out for a little test spin a few months in advance of the CD rollout. The trio made its public debut at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York on May 23, in a pair of shows to benefit JazzReach, an organization dedicated to the vital work of bringing one of our greatest American art forms to a wider audience, with a special focus on jazz education for young people. If the maiden voyage was any indication, this is a combo that’s ready to make some history. The trio swung like mad at B.B. King’s on selections from the songbooks of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and other jazz immortals, as well as some very hip new arrangements of Hornsby originals. Later this summer, Bruce, Christian and Jack will be doing selected dates around the country, including the JVC Festival at Newport, RI and Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl. We’ll have more on this project as the album release draws closer.
Meanwhile, keep up with all the noise from Bruce’s world at www.brucehornsby.com