Hornsby reworks classics and takes a bluegrass ride | AspenTimes.com

Hornsby reworks classics and takes a bluegrass ride

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado

Jerry Garcia called it the curse, and it afflicted any musician who had more than a passing connection to the Grateful Dead. Players from fiddler Vassar Clements to jazz saxophonist David Murray to Nubia’s Hamza El Din would forever attract a flock of tie-dyed spinners among their audience, thanks to having joined the Dead or one of its offshoots in concert.Everyone should be as cursed as Bruce Hornsby, who was a quasi-member of the Dead in the early ’90s. Hornsby has a pair of current projects – the box set “Intersections [1985-2005],” and “Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby” – which should appeal to a broader audience than the tie-dyed spinners he acquired through his association with the Dead.The real curse, it should be noted, was the one that struck anyone who occupied the Dead’s keyboard bench as a full member. With the passing last June of Vince Welnick, there are now four Dead keys players – Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland are the others – occupying an early grave. And now for the truly strange part: Scott Larned, keyboardist in the ultimate Dead cover band, Dark Star Orchestra, died in 2005, at the age of 37. Hornsby, who toured with the Dead in the transition period between Mydland and Welnick, was wise to turn down the offer of full-time employment.

And on to the music …Bruce Hornsby once commented that the Grateful Dead’s notion of improvisation – vary the songs from night to night; vary the solos within the songs – was not nearly enough for him. Hornsby wanted true musical adventure, and it is in that spirit he constructed “Intersections.”On the surface, “Intersections” looks like your standard box set – four CDs and one DVD, familiar hits with dashes of obscure songs, unreleased takes and live tracks. But for his retrospective, Hornsby actually went back over his past catalog and reimagined much of it. Approximately half of the material is previously unreleased.

The first CD is titled “Top 90 Time,” but instead of getting such songs as “The Way It Is” and “The Valley Road” in their familiar forms, they are radically reworked in recordings that date back just a few years. “The Way It Is” (which in its original form, with a sophisticated piano line and lyrics about disillusionment in America, might be the smartest song to hit No. 1 in the last 25 years) gets the solo piano-and-voice treatment. “The Valley Road” (a song about the separation of the classes, and a trip to the abortionist) gets a dynamic band arrangement that has nothing to do with the mellow original. (There are two additional versions of the song here, just as distinctive: a live one with the Dead, and a countrified studio take with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.)”Intersections” documents how Hornsby took the same expansive approach to his career as he did to the songs. Nothing was written in stone; there was always a new direction. After launching his career as leader of the piano-oriented pop-rock band Bruce Hornsby & the Range, he went solo so he could take a jazzier path. His ’90s albums “Harbor Lights” and “Hot House” mixed contemporary jazz into a rock context, and the jazz was supplied by top jazzers like Branford Marsalis and Pat Metheny. He could take a Keith Jarrett tune, “Backhand,” and give it the full New Orleans treatment; play a piano-and-sax duet with free jazz icon Ornette Coleman; link a bit of Charles Ives piano music with his own “Gonna Be Some Changes Made.” “Song H” is classically inspired, jazz-tinged piano music with orchestral backing; “Madman Across the Water” is a chilling take on the Elton John pop tune. Also making appearances are Bonnie Raitt and Shawn Colvin; the Pink Floyd song “Comfortably Numb” and Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters; a monster version of Hornsby’s own “Rainbow’s Cadillac”; and Elton John himself, on a gospel take on Hornsby’s “Dreamland.”Those looking for a repackaging of the familiar are not going to find it here. But Hornsby’s fans should know to expect something more adventurous.

On the other side of the road from his interest in jazz is Hornsby’s taste for country and bluegrass. “Intersections” features the traditional Appalachian tune “Darlin’ Cory,” recorded by Hornsby with mandolinist Ricky Skaggs for a CD tribute to Bill Monroe. Ever since that 1999 session, Hornsby has been talking about a full-album reunion with Skaggs.That promise is fulfilled in all ways with “Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby.” The two team up with dobroist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan and members of Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder for a collection of traditional tunes, rural updates of Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” and “A Night on the Town,” and an out-of-nowhere, not bad cover of Rick James’ “Super Freak.” Hornsby and Skaggs take turns at center stage, but it is Hornsby carrying the biggest weight here: He has to disprove the idea that the piano is at odds with string-oriented bluegrass. His sensitivity and ability to blend with other instruments make pairing seem like a natural.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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