|With Two-Handed Independence, Traversing America's Intersections
By JON PARELES
Bruce Hornsby's big hits in the 1980's and early 90's, like "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain," were serious, thoughtful piano ballads. But anyone who knows his music only by its old studio versions would be startled to hear him now.
Mr. Hornsby spent much of the 1990's playing piano with the Grateful Dead and its spinoffs, and the lighthearted, mix-and-match virtuosity of the jam bands is now inseparable from his music. He started a series of New York shows on Tuesday night with his band at the Blue Note, and his songs were footloose and dazzling.
"I'm on a long sojourn/I'm sitting here shedding my skin," he sang in "Resting Place," and while the lyrics were pensive, the music reveled in motion and transformation.
In his lyrics, Mr. Hornsby is fascinated by American myths, existential paradoxes and his own reminiscences of growing up in the South. He ponders history and family on his new album, "Halcyon Days" (Columbia). But onstage, he usually breezed through the words on the way to instrumental stretches.
The America in his music is one of countless connections and intersections. He worked into his own songs by way of jazz compositions (including Bill Evans's "Twelve-Tone Tune") and segued from them into rock songs like "Mystery Train." His band could steam through a funk, gospel or Latin groove, and it could play precise, stop-start arrangements like a jazz group, with improvisations easily dovetailing into composed passages.
Mr. Hornsby is a remarkable pianist who's not afraid to show off some technique. His fans didn't just send song requests to the stage; one called for "two-handed independence." That was something Mr. Hornsby demonstrated throughout the set. Often, his left hand somersaulted through elaborate patterns while his right darted through melodies, or both hands piled up rich, polytonal harmonies that gave Mr. Hornsby openings for unexpected key changes. He used quick, pointillistic jabs and pealing chords, and he stacked up more syncopation with his voice, delivering his lyrics with easygoing swing.
Even when songs stretched out, nothing overstayed its moment. Mr. Hornsby and his band always had something else up their sleeve, conjuring an America that's still wide open and welcoming.