A night with Bruce Hornsby’s brain

Last Friday night my wife and I had the opportunity to go hear Bruce Hornsby play a solo show at the Paramount Theater in Cedar Rapids. Hornsby is an interesting character – a fantastically talented pianist who has made his fame and fortune in rock and jam band genres, but who has made multiple bluegrass records with Ricky Skaggs and drops classical music into the middle of pop tunes.

When I first heard Hornsby’s stuff probably 10 years ago, I quickly recognized that my own piano styles and harmonizations aren’t too far away from what he plays… to the point that it was almost uncanny. So the chance to see him play in person was not one I was going to pass up.

Hornsby’s current tour is just him with a microphone and a piano (a Steinway concert grand), but with those two tools he commanded the stage for just over two hours. He set the tone by starting the concert with his biggest hit, “The Way it Is”, into which he dropped a long improvisatory section, morphed it into a couple minutes of a Bach something-or-other, and then morphed it back into the close of the song. Later on in a jam section he dropped in an avant garde ‘perpetual motion’ piece by American composer Elliott Carter. Even if he did spend the majority of his years with The Grateful Dead, the dude has serious piano chops.

When we got to our seats on the right-hand side of the theater, my wife lamented that we should’ve gotten seats on the other side so she could see his hands as he played. And I get the fascination with seeing those fingers fly over the keys. But for me the fascination was entirely a mental one.

To sit in the auditorium and engage with Hornsby’s brain as he improvised long sections was an amazing experience. I’m not a jazz player, but I hear and read jazz players talk about listening to and interacting with other jazz players, and after this Hornsby concert I finally think I understand what they’re talking about.

When you really understand the playing technique, the harmonies, the nuts and bolts of the music, then you can start to engage at a deeper level – the progressions, the expression, the choice to go around again or branch off somewhere new… it’s really quite a head trip.

I’d love to see Hornsby play again – preferably with a band next time, to experience all of those interactions. Playing good music in a talented group is a intellectually pleasurable exercise for me almost as much as a musical exercise. Sitting in the audience last weekend wasn’t as good as being in the band, but it got pretty close.

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