Hornsby's Box Set
From Inside Bay Area:
THAT'S JUST THE WAY IT IS
CD boxed set shows Hornsby's diverse styles
By Jim Harrington, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area
TWENTY years ago, a star was born when Bruce Hornsby delivered his chart-topping debut CD "The Way It Is."
To commemorate the occasion, the multi-talented pianist-vocalist has released his first-ever career retrospective, "Intersections 1985-2005." The five-disc boxed set, which includes 53 tunes on four CDs and 22 clips on one DVD, serves as a breathtaking tour of one of the most satisfyingly eclectic careers in modern music history.
"I'm proud that all of this music is in one place now," Hornsby says during a recent phone interview to promote his show on Thursday at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. "With a career like mine, which has sort of stretched out in so many different stylistic areas, I think it's hard for the listener to really know, or to be aware of, all the disparate areas that I've been working in through the years.
"It's nice to sort of have it all definitively in one collection. There's everything from Ornette Coleman to Ricky Skaggs, from Spike Lee to the Grateful Dead, from Chaka Khan to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — it's a real stylistic range. And, to me, I think it's fairly rare and almost singular. There's no way to put that all on one record until you do something like this."
The boxed set is ordered thematically. Disc one features all of the three-time Grammy-winning musician's best-known hits, including "Mandolin Rain," "The Valley Road," "Jacob's Ladder" and, of course, the blockbuster piano ballad "The Way It Is." The disc is called "Top 90 Time," which is a playful nod to the fact that not all of its selections reached the upper echelon of the Billboard singles chart.
The second CD, which boasts the cumbersome title "Solo Piano, Tribute Records, Country-Bluegrass, Movie Songs," is the most interesting of the set. Hornsby's range is really evident here, as he moves through solo piano instrumentals, performances with the New York Philharmonic, cuts from film soundtracks and a variety of other grooves. Notably, the CD includes Hornsby's Grammy-winning collaboration with tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis on "Barcelona Mona," which was composed for the 1992 Olympic Games in Spain, as well as some smokin' live performances with jazz-giant Coleman and the Grateful Dead.
It's hard to name many other musicians who would be comfortable working with both the New York Philharmonic and the Grateful Dead, with whom Hornsby spent nearly two years in the early'90s following the death of the Bay Area band's keyboardist Brent Mydland.
It's also difficult to think of another player whose services are so highly valued by such disparate talents as Coleman and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. There are many talented pianist-vocalists on the scene — so one has to wonder what exactly Hornsby has that appeals to so many different artists. A sparkling personality, perhaps?
"It has nothing to do with personality," the 51-year-old Virginia native says with a laugh. "When people are calling you to work with them or for them, they don't know you — they just like what you do. They've just been moved by something you did. In my case, when I was getting all these calls, it was for a very pure musical reason. They were moved by something I did and they are hoping to get a little bit of that feeling on their record.
"One reason why I've been comfortable in lots of different scenarios, I think, is just my musical upbringing. On the one hand, I'm a schooled musician. I got my degree in music from University of Miami, a great music school. But I also played in a lot of bar bands, played everything from wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs and in everything from disco bands, with the matching leisure suits, to Grateful Dead cover bands."
The third and fourth CDs are both dubbed "By Request (Favorites and Best Songs)" and are split between lesser-known original album tracks and unreleased live nuggets from the vault. The DVD is almost entirely culled from previously unreleased material — 21 of 22 clips are new — and its true highlight is a duet with Roger Waters on Pink Floyd's epic "Comfortably Numb" that was filmed in Spain in 1991.
In all, "Intersections" proves to be a satisfying, impressive and appropriately named anthology. But there is an inherent irony included in the mix. It's strange to see Hornsby put so much apparent time and effort into releasing such a comprehensive retrospective, given that his career has always been about looking forward, not back. He's been a shape-shifting musician from the start, debuting as a piano-pop balladeer and quickly moving to such roles as tie-dyed troubadour and jazz enthusiast.
"My first two or three records were very much of a piece stylistically," Hornsby says. "If I had just continued to just do that, it would have been, for one thing, not really exploring my potential and also it would have just been dull musically. I was just too restless to just do that."
Given his musical personality type, which is very similar to the one that once relentlessly drove Hornsby's old pal Jerry Garcia, it's not surprising that the piano man is following a career retrospective with two new musical endeavors, both due out early next year. He has recorded a bluegrass disc with great mandolinist Ricky Skaggs, who recently wowed fans at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, and a jazz trio set with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Christian McBride.
Hornsby finds inspiration in change. That's why, despite releasing his first retrospective, he refuses to play the part of nostalgia act onstage. In other words, don't come to the Mountain Winery expecting to just get the "Top 90" hits and radio favorites. Hornsby says it's not his job to play jukebox for the fans who bought tickets primarily to hear "Mandolin Rain" and "The Way It Is."
"All of that is just crap," he says. "The people who come to see your concert because you had a hit — they're not real fans of your music. They're just fans of some songs they like. They are there for nostalgic purpose. You understand what I'm saying? That's a creative prison and I just refuse to be a part of that — to be shackled by that notion. My musical life has been sort of about everything but that."
Write music critic Jim Harrington at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more music coverage, visit http://www.insidebayarea.com/music.