After a quarter-century of furthering a sense of songcraft that shed one stylistic skin after another as it evolved, Bruce Hornsby figured the time had come for a sit-down.
It wasn't just that the Grammy-winning pianist, vocalist and composer needed a break. Although in a career that had sailed non-stop through radio stardom, a tenure with the Grateful Dead and recordings that embraced jazz, bluegrass and various rock and classical accents, Hornsby probably could have used a breather. But taking 2010 off from the road proved necessary to find the right way to promote a performance career with distinct, dual personalities.
He wanted to find the best avenues to showcase his solo piano performances, which first brought him to The Kentucky Theatre in the late '90s, and concerts with his long-running band The Noisemakers, which brings Hornsby back to the venue Saturday.
"Interestingly enough, I felt it was time to kind of reinvent how we presented ourselves as concert artists," Hornsby said by phone last week. "For the last four or five years, we've observed that my solo shows have been outdrawing my band concerts. So I thought, let's try and ingratiate ourselves to the festival circuit and kind of mine that area for the band more.
"The solo shows, by nature, go down easier for certain audiences. There is an older crowd we play to that really prefers to just sit down and listen to the music. That's why I tend to play solo at theaters and performing arts centers. The Grateful Dead audience would be kind of disappointed by that. That kind of setting would be a drag for them, and I totally understand that. So we will see how this Kentucky Theatre show goes. That's usually not the kind of place we play for these band concerts because they are more rowdy, unbridled and a little crazy. It's just a joyful noise."
Such a sound abounds on Hornsby's 2011 concert album, Bride of the Noisemakers. Pulled from three years of performances, the repertoire offers a crash course in just how stylistically expansive Hornsby's music has become. It revisits '80s songs cut with his breakthrough band The Range (Defenders of the Flag), progressive works from '90s-era solo albums (Shadow Hand) and newer, leaner music forged by The Noisemakers (the title tune to 2009's album Levitate). But there are also diverse covers (Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb, Keith Jarrett's The Wind Up and the Grateful Dead's Standing on the Moon) as well as hints of Hornsby's fascination with numerous classical inspirations (snippets of Anton Webern, Elliot Carter and Samuel Barber pepper the album). Bride of the Noisemakers luxuriates in a sound that it as clean and exact as it is flexible and adventurous.
"Listen to my first record (1986's The Way It Is) and listen to Bride of the Noisemakers," Hornsby said. "They are completely different. I'm in a constant search for inspiration. It's funny, though. The two areas I'm most involved with now are polar opposites.
"One is songwriting. It's not quite as informed by jazz as it once was. I'm into more of this very basic, gut-bucket songwriting. The other is modern classical music. I've inflicted some of that on my audiences — a little Webern, a little Schoenberg. That's informing a lot of my newer music.
"I'm still very passionate about three-chord music. But I do get restless for going over to the dark side and dealing with the black keys, if you know what I mean."
The coming months will see the release of a live collaborative album with Kentucky-born country-bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs (the two released a studio record in 2007), a soundtrack to the Spike Lee documentary Red Hook Summer and a solo concert album. Already out is Dirty Ground, a tune Hornsby wrote and recorded for veteran jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette's new album Sound Travels. And in the works is new music that marks a blooming songwriting partnership with the prolific Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
"Our first attempts are already in a beautiful area. On New Year's Day, he sent me an email that said, 'Happy New Year. Here are some words.'
"You know, my wife tells me I work and study harder at music now than I did when I was in my 20s. I guess I'm sort of a proselytizer in that respect. I'm always interested in making people as interested in music as I am."