On Monday evening, Bruce Hornsby and his magnificent band made clear the dividing line between what is now referred to with the trendy nom de plume jam band music, and truly in-the-moment, improvisation-based ensemble playing.
When Hornsby and his band are on, the listener is invited to participate in the dialogue with the musicians on stage. And man, what a conversation that is, a blend of American musical dialects with nods to the European classical tradition, and side-trips into everything from blues to bluegrass, country to Nawlins-style funk.
At the heart of all of this is Hornsby, the songwriter.
But for Hornsby, the songs, as they were originally recorded, are only the starting point.
Taking the stage with roughly a minute of outside jazz playing, Hornsby and company launched into "Big Boss Man" and didn't look back.
By evening's end, they'd plowed through two sets of music with gleeful abandon and eminent musicianship, and surely no segment of the Hornsby audience -- fans of the more singer/songwriter oriented early fare with the Range, Deadheads who came on board following Hornsby's stints with the Grateful Dead and later, the Other Ones, or the jazz-literate who fell beneath his sway around the time of 1995's masterful Hot House record -- could fairly claim to have left dissatisfied.
The band -- drummer Sonny Emory, bassist JV Collier, guitarist Doug Derryberry, keyboardist JT Thomas, and saxophonist Bobby Read -- surrounded Hornsby's Steinway grand piano in a semicircle, and all eyes were on their leader as he followed the music, improvising dynamically and harmonically..
To call this an impressive display of musicianship is a serious understatement.
Hornsby fans know how much the man seems to love requests, and scraps of paper littered the stage before the band had even emerged. He indulged, smilingly, and many surprises resulted, from an inspired impromptu take on the Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed," through the gorgeous "This Too Shall Pass," a tune from the unjustly overlooked "Big Swing Face" record.
There were hilarious moments aplenty after Hornsby invited "All the women who are going to vote tomorrow" on stage to dance for a tune; he had trouble getting them to leave, as members of his road crew cavorted among them dressed as presidents Bush (in cowboy hat and waving a pair of plastic pistols) Nixon and Carter. Hornsby abandoned the piano stool and ran around taking pictures of the dancers with a disposable camera.
Later, he offered up a solo piano take on Samuel Barber's "Nocturne," played with elegance and precision, before calling his musicians back on stage for what is surely one of the finest versions of "The Show Goes On" the band has ever played.
Other highlights included a seriously funky reworking of the classic "The Valley Road," an elegiac retelling of the tune Hornsby wrote with Don Henley, the timely "The End of the Innocence," and the gorgeous pop confection "Walk In the Sun."
Hornsby is a singular artist on the modern landscape, in that he is able to make serious, intense and virtuosic music fun -- not just for the musicians in the audience, but for everyone willing to open their ears and their hearts. He's a class act.