He has led an all-star jazz trio, he has taken turns at bluegrass, and he has collaborated with some of the most honored names in rock and pop. Shoot, the guy was even a member of the Grateful Dead.
But when it comes to the regal, piano-based music he makes on his own, Bruce Hornsby favors a setting where he can make serious noise. Hence, the Noisemakers, a diverse band of pop strategists who can match Hornsby’s virtuosic musicianship, play with a fearsome ensemble tightness and yet remain open to whatever spontaneous turns and jams might emerge.
The Noisemakers — keyboardist J.T. Thomas, guitarist and mandolinist Doug Derryberry, saxophonist Bobby Read, bassist J.V. Collier and drummer Sonny Emory — are the players who bring the multi-Grammywinning star back to Lexington on Tuesday for a concert at the Opera House.
“The members of the Noisemakers are veterans, like me, of so many different types of gigs, from lounge gigs, frat parties with ropes to separate the dancers from the band, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, J-Lo, Was Not Was, biker bars, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mumford and Sons, Gladys Knight, Holiday Inns, Captain Beefheart, Brandi Carlile, on and on and on,” Hornsby said recently.
“They are very adept at moving from one style to another at the blink of an eye or wave of a hand — in this case, my hand. They watch me closely because they know I’m restless and often looking for something new to do within a song’s performance. Also, I try to ‘entertain the band’— to keep it loose, free and improvisational every night. This approach keeps it always fresh.”
Hornsby emerged as a pop songsmith when the singles “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road” made him a rock-radio regular beginning in 1986. But his career has since traveled numerous stylistic paths that his airwave-friendly music might not have forecast, including two albums with Kentucky-born country and bluegrass giant Ricky Skaggs, and an instrumental jazz record with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
“Jazz music, bluegrass music and lots of my own music have one thing in common: They’ve all been about virtuosity on the instrument. My style comes from a combination of these disparate stylistic elements and is often described as ‘Bill Evans meets the hymnal, with some blues thrown in.’”
In 1991, Hornsby met with one of his musical inspirations, Leon Russell, to produce a comeback record for him titled “Anything Can Happen.” But scan almost any Hornsby record and you are likely to find a song (say, “Another Day” from 1990’s “A Night on the Town”) from which the jubilant spirit of Russell, who died in November, beams.
“I thought I could do a pretty solid Leon imitation on the piano until I started working with him closely on the ‘Anything Can Happen’ record,” Hornsby said. “I saw that it was way deeper than I had thought. It was beautiful to actually be able to learn literally at the feet of the gospel/rock ’n’ roll master. We were good friends for years, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa last November. I’ll always miss him, very much like Garcia.”
The finality of these ‘last Dead concerts’ gave me a different sense of what was happening. I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion.
“Garcia,” of course, was Jerry Garcia, the late guitarist of the Grateful Dead, which enlisted Hornsby as a touring member during the ’90s. The connection was re-established in 2015, when he was asked to play as part of the Dead for a run of career-concluding concerts. The performances were chronicled on the concert CD and DVD, “Fare Thee Well.”
“The finality of these ‘last Dead concerts’ gave me a different sense of what was happening,” Hornsby said. “I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically, and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion. The ‘Fare Thee Well’ concerts were an unforgettable experience for me — such a great time playing with my old Dead cousins.”
Up next for Hornsby will be the completion of music for Spike Lee’s Netflix series based on his first movie, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (Hornsby’s ninth project with the filmmaker) and a record of new songs composed for orchestra.
“(It) may be the most original thing I’ve done,” Hornsby said of the orchestra project. “Or it may not be. But at the very least it’s surely the most dissonant and harmonically adventurous music I’ve made. So yes, I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regard to new music and musical areas to explore.”