Almost three decades after winning a Grammy for Best New Artist and launching one of contemporary music’s most diverse careers, Bruce Hornsby still makes joyful noise as he discovers clever and expansive ways to chronicle dynamic musical snapshots of his often generously collaborative journey.
Nothing better illustrates this than Hornsby’s communion with his longtime band, the Noisemakers. And nothing catches that connection with more daring fluency than a couple of live collections released eleven years apart; 2011’s Bride of the Noisemakers, a set of concert recordings from 2007 to 2009, and 2000‘s Here Come the Noisemakers, which initially unveiled Hornsby and his band’s free-wheeling live approaches to the Virginia-born pianist and composer’s memorable songs.
Tapping into many of the genres that have influenced Hornsby’s music over the years—pop, jazz, bluegrass, country and modern classical—these collections feature songs from previous releases such as Big Swing Face(2002), Halcyon Days (2004), and Levitate (2009) — as well as from Camp Meeting (2007), which featured bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette, plus Hornsby’s acclaimed early releases such as Scenes From The Southside (1988), Hothouse (1995), and Spirit Trail (1998).
The Noisemakers are bassist J.V. Collier, a twenty-year veteran of the band, as well as keyboardist/organist John “JT” Thomas and drummer Sonny Emory, who have played with Hornsby twenty-four and twelve years respectively. Summer 2014 marks the arrival of two new Noisemakers — fiddle/mandolin player Ross Holmes and guitarist Gibb Droll — as well as the departures of longtime members Bobby Read and Doug Derryberry. Holmes currently fiddles for Mumford and Sons, has played with hosts of Nashville titans as diverse as Ricky Skaggs and the Dixie Chicks, and has performed with symphonies in the United States and Europe. Droll has played guitar on various projects involving Keller Williams, Kevin Kinney, and Brandi Carlile; he is also a composer, and painter.
“I think the guys in the Noisemakers like the gig because there’s never a dull moment and we attempt to keep the spontaneity factor high,” Hornsby says. “The idea always is, ‘Watch Bruce.’ I’m a fairly loose leader and I don’t like to rehearse. We mostly just ride around the country on a bus and laugh a lot. Hopefully you can hear that loose spirit in our shows.”
Times and band members change, and Hornsby knows it. Yet for all his forward thinking he remembers the past. “As the years go by and my music evolves, I’ve been increasingly interested in hearing some new sounds in my band,” he says. “As I get older, I’ve become more of a folkie than a jazzer, and I’ve felt the need to move the music accordingly.”
“Bobby Read is one of the greatest musicians I know. I’ve loved playing with him, and hope to always have opportunities to work with him. He was with us for twenty years, and I’m so grateful for his great taste, good humor, soul, and musicianship during his long tenure.”
“When I released the Spirit Trail album in 1998, I needed to find a guitar player who could play John Leventhal’s great orchestral guitar parts that enhanced that music so much. Doug Derryberry filled that bill and much more, with his guitar, strong vocals, and mandolin playing giving us what we needed for fifteen years. He has been the oracle of the band; we all have gone to Doug for help in remembering old parts, chords, lyrics and endings through the years. Thanks go out to both of these great people for their efforts and contributions adding so much to our sound for many years.”
For all his talents as a singer, bandleader and pianist with an instantly identifiable sound, Hornsby is a songwriter at heart committed to portraying his songs in changing ways that allow them to expand organically. This approach was further developed by Hornsby’s time with The Grateful Dead when he joined the legendary band between 1990 and 1995 for over a hundred shows. In the Dead’s vibrant tradition of loosely blending improvised folk and blues Hornsby found a shared musical aesthetic.
In recent years, he has pushed his artistic limits, working with bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, The Bruce Hornsby Trio, and jazz legend Charlie Haden. Hornsby has also scored a number of projects for filmmaker Spike Lee including the documentary Kobe Doin’ Work (2009), Red Hook Summer
(2012), and the upcoming Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Hornsby has contributed to all-star collections that pay tributes to Fats Domino, The Band and in 2014, Jackson Browne. A music graduate of University of Miami, Hornsby also has partnered with its Frost School of Music to establish the Creative American Music Program, a curriculum designed to develop the creative skills of talented young artist/songwriters by immersing them in the many traditions that form the foundations of modern American songwriting.
“In the spirit of musical evolution, I’m always trying to keep my band on their toes,” Hornsby says. “I was a sideman once and I know only too well how playing the same thing the same way night after night can become a dismal prison.” That recognition lay behind the 2006 release of Hornsby’s box set Intersections (1985-2005), which groups his long career into three different categories: “Top 90 Time;” “Solo Piano, Tribute Records, Country-Bluegrass, Movie Scores;” and “By Request (Favorites and Best Songs).”
The classifications illuminate Hornsby’s bedrock notions about his music: He wants to ensure that even his most familiar pop songs avoid the frozen-in-time quality of museum pieces. A third of the music on Intersections previously is unreleased, and most of the best-known tracks appear in live versions. The set also features “Song H,” a composition that was nominated in 2007 for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental.
Still, Intersections tells only a part of Hornsby’s extraordinary musical story. His three Grammy wins typify the diversity of his first decade of recording: Best New Artist as leader of Bruce Hornsby and the Range; Best Bluegrass Recording for a version of “The Valley Road” that appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume II; and a shared award with Branford Marsalis in 1993 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Barcelona Mona,” a song for the 1992 Olympic Games.
The commercial successes and creative achievements of Hornsby’s superstar collaborations — including many sampled passages chosen by hip-hop artists — verify Hornsby’s fusion of wide appeal and musical adventure. Consider: His albums have sold over 11 million copies worldwide.
The title cut from The Way It Is was the most played song on American radio in 1987, winning the ASCAP Song of the Year award. Harbor Lights won the 1994 of Downbeat Reader’s Poll Beyond Album of the Year — a citation given to music from any genre apart from jazz or blues.
The late Tupac Shakur, working with Hornsby, fashioned a new song over “The Way It Is” adding new lyrics and calling the result “Changes.” The track was an international hit and sold fourteen million copies.
Over the years, Hornsby has played on over a hundred records, including albums by Bob Dylan, Don Henley, the Grateful Dead, Bob Seger, Crosby Stills and Nash, Stevie Nicks, Cowboy Junkies, Squeeze, Chaka Khan, Liquid Jesus, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Whitley, Shawn Colvin, Bela Fleck, Clint Black, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Scruggs, and Willie Nelson. Hornsby contributed end-title songs for the Spike Lee films Clockers and Bamboozled.
Hornsby has participated in memorable events: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1995 opening concert, Farm Aid IV and VI, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Festival, Bonnaroo, and Woodstock II and III. An avid sports fan, Hornsby — solo and with Branford Marsalis — has performed the National Anthem for many major events including the NBA All-Star game, four NBA finals, and the 1997 World Series Game 5.
His work appears on the soundtrack to Ken Burns Baseball. “I can be a slow learner,” Hornsby says, “and sometimes it takes me a while to arrive at the most soulful way to play and sing one of my songs — or anyone’s song, for that matter. Our approach to playing allows songs to grow, evolve and change through the years. That’s where the improvisatory mindset has led us.”
It is a singularly rich place, a place for stirring noise-making.