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Bruce Hornsby is busting a gut over his own joke, precipitated by my confession that his 2002 release "Big Swing Face" is one of my favorite records of the past 10 years or so.

"Yeah, you and about 10 other people," he says.

Speaking by phone from a stop on his just-launched "Halcyon Days" tour, which brings him Monday to the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, Hornsby is open, charming and not at all above healthy doses of self-deprecating humor, regardless of the topic.

And for Hornsby, the topics aren't necessarily of the sort that'd make you smile.

His wife has been battling illness for a few years now, a fact he says makes it hard for him to be forever away from home. And "Big Swing Face," his last record for RCA/BMG, was allowed by that label to wither on the vine, despite the very obvious inclusion of a half-dozen potential hit singles.

Hornsby is also the father of twin boys, whose presence informs much of the heartfelt but never overly earnest lyrical content of his new "Halcyon Days" disc.

But, as one of "Big Swing Face's" finest tunes, "This Too Shall Pass," wearily rhapsodizes ("There's your hopes and dreams you embrace/Then there's what's staring you in the face/Sorrowful times are here but they won't last/'Cause this, too, shall pass"), there's an upside to all of this.

After urging Hornsby to re-record the material on "Big Swing Face" in order to unearth a more marketable sound, RCA then failed to promote the completed record, leaving it to suffer as a commercial dud, despite its readily apparent brilliance. Now, Hornsby is signed to Columbia, a label with a well-earned reputation for allowing creative control to artists.

Ironically, in "Halcyon Days," Hornsby delivered Columbia an album that is sure to appeal to each faction of his fan base -- from those who loved his early singer-songwriter fare with the Range; to the younger fans he picked up while touring with Grateful Dead and later the Other Ones; to lovers of the jazz-informed interplay of records like "Hot House," which featured guest appearances by Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck and Jerry Garcia.

"I didn't let anyone know that I was planning on having Sting and Elton John appear on this new record," laughs Hornsby. "It's funny, now that you mention it. No one else has said that this record has a little something for all the fans, from Deadheads to 'adult music' lovers, but I think you're right.

"But remember when Clive Davis put Carlos Santana with all of these pop acts? I thought that was pretty disgusting, like, 'Let's make a record and then get the old hippie to come in and play over it.' So I kept the idea of having famous guests to myself. And I just made the record I wanted to make."

Hornsby has, for some listeners, been frozen forever as the late-'80s artist whose piano-based pop tour de force "The Way It Is" made him a star. Later, his instantly identifiable, lyrical piano style marked Don Henley's massive "The End of the Innocence," and Hornsby began to be considered an adult-contemporary figure.

But listening to what he's done in the 15 years since, one is hard-pressed to accept this official version of the man. He's always been too funky, too "outside," too intelligent and virtuosic to be merely a purveyor of grown-up pop.

"I never play it totally straight," Hornsby says. "I mean, that bores me, and I make records to satisfy myself. None of it is really straight. It's always been important to me to blend good writing and good playing. That's my thing, that's my little row to hoe, my path to walk. And I'm happy to do that."

In concert, Hornsby and his band of seasoned musicians are known to take their collective craft to the edge, pushing the envelope, and often restructuring familiar material in new and exciting ways. In a sense, Hornsby approaches his material the way a jazz musician would. Not surprising, given that he's a schooled and studied player whose interests run the gamut from the elegant sophistication of jazz pianist supreme Bill Evans, to funk, blues, country, bluegrass and soul.

And yet, whatever he plays -- and a bluegrass record is on the horizon, as is another project that explores rhythmic and sonic modernity in the vein of "Big Swing Face" -- sounds decidedly like himself.

"I'm just an old-school musician," says Hornsby, and then there's that infectious laugh again.

"I practiced a real lot, I've played a lot of different kinds of music in a lot of different harmonic and rhythmic areas. I have always done things that vary, stylistically. It's not really pre-edited. It's just me being who I am."


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