Bruce Hornsby notes that when he's been playing his eighth album, ``Big Swing Face,'' for people, the general reaction is ``Who the hell is this?''
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Simply put, it's an album that doesn't sound quite like anything Hornsby has done before. Then again, it's hardly news to say that Hornsby is experimenting and pursuing different directions again. Since he emerged in 1986 with his triple-platinum debut album ``The Way it Is'' -- which earned him a Grammy Award for Best New Artist -- Hornsby had delighted in stretching his own creative boundaries and challenging the parameters of the mainstream music world. During the course of his career the Williamsburg, Va., native has turned jagged, Keith Jarrett-style piano solos into Top 10 hits and has pursued everything from polished, swinging pop to rootsy Southern paeans and gritty juke joint soul. In an industry that often values the safe, Hornsby has made it safe to be a little dangerous.
``Big Swing Face'' is a whole different matter, however, and is Hornsby's farthest step afield. There's less piano -- far less piano - this time out, and more guitar. There are loops, samples and other technological ``chicanery'' (in Bruce's words) to create an assortment of moods and textures. And there's a spirited lightness of tone and irreverence with the language that forms a nice complement to the detailed narratives and character studies that have been the stock in trade of Hornsby's previous efforts.
What it does retain, however, is the rich melodicism that's always inherent in Hornsby's music -- even his most avant-garde pieces. ``My whole approach is I just want to like it,'' Hornsby explains. ``This is generally a very different, sort of quirkier record. Songwriting-wise, I did have more fun. I didn't drive myself crazy; I just wanted to write some funny shit. So it was liberating. It just took me to a different place musically, which led me to a different lyrical space as well.''
``Big Swing Face'' was actually not the album Hornsby set out to make. He planned to follow the 2001 live album ``Bring on the Noisemakers'' with a song cycle about his twin sons, now age 10, and was working on it in earnest when his A&R rep, David Bendeth, came to Williamsburg to hear the new music and to produce an ``oddball little song'' that Hornsby had also cooked up. ``So he listens to the stuff and he goes `Great songs. Big fuckin' deal,' '' Hornsby recalls with a laugh. ``I go `What do you mean?' He says `Well, it's sorta like the same thing. The songs are really great. I think you've written some great things here. But it's not, like, anything particularly new.'
``So he unloads this sort of vibe on me. Then we work on this other tune, and I loved what he did with it. I loved the way he made this other song sound.''
That song was ``So Out,'' which became the lynch pin for ``Big Swing Face.''
Hornsby and David Bendeth decided to put the other album on hold -- Hornsby plans to finish it in the near future -- and follow this new path that Hornsby acknowledges was both exciting and daunting.
``It's a standard artistic ploy to say `Screw the A&R guy' and `It's my way and I have the artistic vision -- this is what I'm gonna do, and I hope you like it,' sort of thing,'' Hornsby notes. ``But (`So Out') made me curious about going down this sort of left-field road and doing these things I'd always wanted to do sonically on my records, but I didn't know how to do it before and never really worked with anybody who could do it me. So we started down the long road towards this record.''
Recorded in fits and spurts between November 2000 and November 2001, ``Big Swing Face's'' 11 songs wind themselves through a variety of sonic paths that range from the wiggling electric groovery of ``So Out'' and ``Sticks & Stones'' to the moody soulfulness of ``The Chill'' and ``This Too Shall Pass,'' the jazzy, polyrhythmic swirl of the title track and the funky drive of ``Cartoons & Candy'' and ``Try Anything Once.''
The tracks are fortified by members of Hornsby's touring band and by guest guitarist Steve Kimock, who worked with Hornsby in the ad hoc Grateful Dead group The Other Ones. Also popping up on ``Big Swing Face'' is Floyd Hill, Jr., a 70-year-old Hornsby family friend in Williamsburg who co-wrote and raps on the song ``No Home Training.''
Hill's contribution is indicative of the lyrical course Hornsby took with much of ``Big Swing Face,'' a down-home approach informed by the vernacular he was exposed to as a teenager. ``I was the only white guy on the basketball team,'' says Hornsby, who moved from private school into a public high school. ``I was thrust totally headlong into this rural black culture of my town, and it's been such an influence on me all my life. I still talk shit just like I learned from those guys, and a lot of this record has to do with that. All that stuff, like `Crack ya upside the head,' `Oh God'm kill me daid' (dead) is coming straight out of that.''
Since this album was going in such a different direction, I thought it was a good area to delve into.'' Hornsby has been cutting a wide creative swath since he graduated from the famed University of Miami music school and moved to Los Angeles, where he played in Sheena Easton's touring band but never lost sight of wanting to create his own music. In 1986, as Huey Lewis & the News were taking his ``Jacob's Ladder'' to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Hornsby reached the top himself with ``The Way it Is,'' a crisp and cinematic narrative about civil rights that was marked by lengthy, jazz-inflected piano passages that sounded completely unlike anything else on the radio at the time. It the first of a string of ambitious compositions that scaled the charts and saturated the airwaves, including tracks such as ``Mandolin Rain,'' ``Every Little Kiss'' and ``The Valley Road.''
``I'm really proud that songs like that could be big hits,'' he says.
Hornsby's boundary-stretching pursuit has continued unabated. While his list of guest appearances is enormous -- including co-writing and performing on Don Henley's Grammy-winning smash ``The End of the Innocence,'' a stint with the Grateful Dead and sessions for Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and others -- Hornsby's own releases have been consistently eclectic and captivating, revealing the head of a pop craftsman and the heart of a virtuosic jazz improvisationalist. ``Scenes from the Southside'' (1988) was another platinum, Top 5 smash. ``A Night on the Town''(1990 - Gold) bristled with live energy. ``Harbor Lights'' (1993 - Gold) painted textured musical pastiches, while ``Hot House'' (1995) had the heart of a juke joint. And the two-CD ``Spirit Trail'' (1998) was a sweeping tour de force of adventurous musicality and pointed lyrical commentary.
Along the way, Hornsby has continued to push himself and add new facets to his craft. Intensive piano studies during the mid-`90s yielded a two-handed playing style that brought additional dynamics and nuances to his playing, while shifts in his band personnel have taken his performances to even greater heights. ``Big Swing Face'' is the latest destination on an already broad creative highway, and while it's admittedly winsome -- ``Any time you start off a record with `scabby head knobby kneed old nappy head,' you know you're not going to too serious a place,'' he notes -- it doesn't abandon the qualities or sensibilities that have made Hornsby a vital and essential noisemaker.
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