Bruce Hornsby, Christian McBride, Jack DeJohnette
John Metzger's #17 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2007, Volume 14, #8
Written by John Metzger
Thu August 23, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
More and more, it’s beginning to appear as if 2007 will become known as the year in which Bruce Hornsby regained his focus, cleaned out his closet full of ideas, and finished some long overdue projects. As last year’s boxed set Intersections proved, his tastes always have been varied. During the 1990s, in particular, he sent his music shooting in so many different directions that it became increasingly difficult to track them. Admirably, it seemed as if there was little that he wouldn’t try to incorporate into his compositions, his live performances, or his albums.
Hornsby’s restlessness, however, hasn’t come without a cost. Although his tireless energy has meant that his work is impossible to pigeonhole, he also has moved so rapidly from place to place that he has confused a market that demands specific categorization. Maybe he realized this. Maybe he had stretched himself too thin. Maybe he lost some of his confidence when the sprawling Spirit Trail, the electronica-oriented Big Swing Face, and the guest-laden Halcyon Days struggled to find and maintain an audience. Maybe he simply ran out of new places to explore. For whatever reason, Hornsby became decidedly less prolific after the dawning of the new millennium, though his recent resurgence suggests that he is, perhaps, ready to return to the refreshingly eclectic ways of his past.
It likely isn’t a coincidence that Hornsby’s self-titled collaboration with Ricky Skaggs as well as his latest effort Camp Meeting feel like proper follow-ups to the groundwork that he laid during the 1990s. Just as the former outing had its roots in Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe, the seeds for the latter endeavor were planted on As Long as You’re Living Yours: A Tribute to Keith Jarrett as well as the concert document Here Come the Noise Makers. In 2002, guitarist Pat Metheny further prompted him to explore his love of jazz after the pair united on stage to perform Miles Davis' Solar with the University of Virginia’s jazz orchestra. The result of Hornsby’s recent output is that he sounds more like himself than he has in a long time. In fact, his pursuits in 2007 effectively have made Big Swing Face and Halcyon Days seem rather superfluous.
Hornsby long has wanted to put his degree in jazz to good use, and where his approach to Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby occasionally felt a little tentative, he sounds fully invested in all of the material on Camp Meeting. In making his new effort, he teamed with bass player Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette to run through a slew of classic tunes as well as several original compositions. It says a lot about Hornsby’s capabilities that he not only was able to attract but also was pursued actively by a pair of highly revered jazz artists. It’s even more telling that the trio’s chemistry is so tight and well defined that Camp Meeting sounds as if it were crafted by a veteran act that has been performing together for years. The manner in which the musicians converse — whether it’s the seamlessness of Hornsby’s and McBride’s solos on Miles Davis’ Solar or the ensemble’s intricate dance through Ornette Coleman’s Questions and Answers — is positively fascinating.
Not that there should have been any doubt, but Camp Meeting makes one thing perfectly clear: Nobody plays piano like Bruce Hornsby. Despite the fact that the collection boldly contains interpretations of songs by several legendary pianists — including Jarrett (Death and the Flower), Thelonious Monk (Straight, No Chaser), and Bud Powell (Celia) — there’s no mistaking who is taking the lead. Considering the way in which his fingers strike the keys and the manner in which he sends notes skipping across the surface of the underlying propulsion — Hornsby undeniably has a distinctive, edgy, and fearless approach to performing. In all cases, rather than merely respecting the original recordings, he also finds ways of completely contemporizing them by retaining their essence while bathing them in new light.
Camp Meeting can, perhaps, be comprehended best if it is viewed as a jazz-fusion project that has been transplanted into the setting of a traditional trio. McBride largely remains anchored on the latter side of the equation, while Hornsby and DeJohnette flit to and fro, literally at the flip of a switch. In addition to a standard drum kit, DeJohnette also employs an array of electronic percussion flourishes, and whenever he makes the transition — such as on Questions and Answers, the title track, and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps — the material immediately assumes the futuristic air of a Flecktonian foray, albeit one that features piano instead of banjo. Yet, where Bela Fleck’s excursions have had a tendency to become, at times, a little soporific, Hornsby, DeJohnette, and McBride deftly whip the songs on Camp Meeting into a dizzying blur of rhythm and melody. Even on the ballad We’ll Be Together, the instrumentation is carefully braided. The lone outlier is Jarrett’s Death and the Flower, but the tune is rendered with such immaculate beauty that it provides a necessary, contrasting statement to the rest of the affair.
Over the course of Camp Meeting, Hornsby also manages to draw allusions to the various stages of his career. When he joined the Grateful Dead during the latter portion of 1990, for example, it wasn’t unusual for him to instigate a melodic theme that was to be explored by a smaller segment of the ensemble. One evening, Phil Lesh and Vince Welnick remained on stage with him; the next night, it was Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia who stayed behind to improvise. Camp Meeting is an extension of the concepts that they explored. Likewise, Hornsby’s introduction to Solar, with its air of classical elegance, is a direct descendant of The Way It Is and The Show Goes On.
Without question, Camp Meeting is a seriously heady affair. In fact, its complexity is so great that its rewards are not always immediate. Sometimes, it takes a while for all of the album’s contours to come into focus, but when they do, the results, more often than not, are quite profound. Considering his co-stars, it shouldn’t be a surprise that what Hornsby has created is a far cry from the drudgery that pop stars tend to unleash when they attempt to venture down similar paths. When all is said and done, even the snobbiest jazz critics are going to have to admit that Camp Meeting is a positively stunning endeavor.
Of Further Interest...
Camp Meeting is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box