His eclectic rock blazes a trail to Grammys

ALONE in the spotlight, pianist Bruce Hornsby begins a simple, plaintive solo with his right hand. His left hand joins in, chords descending in rich resonance. He pauses, as if to decide what to play next. Out of the stillness begins a fast drum beat, punctuated by sharp hits - two, four - on the tom-tom. The audience breaks into cheering and applause. The stage lights up, and the hard-driving rock tune ``The Way It Is'' begins at the Orpheum Theater.

Mr. Hornsby's recent concert here - part of a 21-city tour - showed clearly the appeal a ``good ol' piano player'' has in today's pop scene. Devoid of stereotypes and high-tech glitz, Bruce Hornsby and the Range have challenged the music industry's rule books - and won.

They do everything a rock band should, but with a rough-at-the-edges Southern flair derived from Hornsby himself. Growing up in Williamsburg, Va., set the tone for his music, which is a blend of jazz, country, rock, and New Age - ``a very odd mix,'' Hornsby concedes in a Monitor interview.

``The Way It Is'' raised the curtain on Hornsby and his four-member band last year. Its fresh sound, together with poignant lyrics about racial injustice, pushed them into the limelight.

After seven years of traveling the club circuit, they are finally tasting success: Their debut album has sold more than 2 million copies, and Hornsby has received a Grammy nomination for ``best new artist.'' (CBS will televise the awards show tomorrow night.)

Performing live, Hornsby projects quite a different image from the photograph on his record jacket. When he's not sitting behind his piano, this 6-foot, 4-inch pop star - who originally wanted to be a pro basketball player - is loping and strutting around the stage with an accordion - yes, an accordion - strapped to his chest. He takes total command of the scene, his long legs spread wide apart, shifting and bouncing with the beat. And all the while he beams and grins as if he's having the time of his life.

His somewhat awkward, country-boy image, plus a hit song with a social conscience, has attracted many a fan.

``I feel that if it's true to me and honest from me, then it's meaningful and people will react more strongly. I think people can tell what's honest and what's not,'' Hornsby says. ``In the music business, you face such rejection. If you don't have a good amount of self-confidence, then you're in the wrong business.''

Hornsby should know. It was a long haul for him and his band, who faced rejection from every major record label at least two or three times. Now, at age 32, Hornsby has had enough experience and hard times to make him ripe with self-confidence - even when his style is, well, a bit different from the city-slicker set.

His lyrics, written also by his brother John, call up images of tidewater, rural marshlands, and the Chesapeake Bay. But the element that has garnered him the most attention is the meaning behind some of those lyrics. ``The Way It Is,'' a song about racist attitudes, is based on his experiences ``growing up in a small Southern town where those attitudes prevailed - the narrow-mindedness and bigotry,'' Hornsby explains.

For a white rock performer to sing about social issues can be tricky, though, and Hornsby acknowledges that people often don't respond well to being preached at.

``So we don't preach. We try to find an understated way of saying all these things.''

Hornsby's second album - to be recorded this summer - will be even more topical, he says, with songs about pollution and the Ku Klux Klan. What motivates Bruce and John to write about tough topics?

``We just find it more interesting. I'm really not concerned with trying to find what the people will like, because that's the wrong way to go about it. You've got to follow your own instincts. That's what I did to get this far. ... So it'd be a little stupid for me, now that we've got commercial success, to turn around and think, `OK, now I gotta write a hit.' We're not going to do that.''

Hornsby cites jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and honky-tonk singer George Jones as influences. His affection for Cajun music led him to learn the accordion, and today he handles a custom-made one that triggers a synthesizer at the same time.

His piano playing is loaded with jazzy solos sounded out on a Kimball ``road'' piano - a smaller, streamlined piano that can handle the rigors of traveling. Electronic sounds are used artfully but subordinated to the piano. That people like his piano playing ``isn't a bad sign,'' he says. ``I think a lot of people are tired of [synthesizers]. They just want to hear honest music played by a few musicians - not a lot of machines and sequencers.''

Piano study began later for Hornsby than for most - at age 17. ``I wanted to be a basketball player when I was in high school, but I realized I wasn't good enough to play pro ball,'' he says.

So the high school ``jock'' went off to music school at the University of Miami, in Florida, and learned how to play classical and jazz piano - and how to ``groove'' the way musicians do - how to keep ``good time,'' says Hornsby. Then came composing.

``I started writing music because we had a band in Virginia. ... We always used to play Top 40 music in lounges, and the way to move out of that was to write our own songs. I knew the most chords, so I was elected band songwriter.''

But commercial success eluded them. For seven years Hornsby and his band played in out-of-the-way clubs to indifferent crowds, trying to swing deals with a big record company. But no takers. He did, however, land a job as a songwriter for 20th Century-Fox in Hollywood and played keyboard in rock singer Sheena Easton's band.

At that time Hornsby's style was quite different; he relied largely on synthesizers and guitar, which resulted in what he now describes as ``a weird mishmash of nothing.''

``I thought, `Well, you don't hear [acoustic] piano on the radio, so I guess you can't do it.''' But he eventually changed his mind and took up traditional piano again. ``I never embraced [electronic music] really. I always just liked piano.''

He made a tape for smaller record companies to look at, and Windham Hill offered him a deal - but before he could accept, RCA discovered him and made its own offer.

``I turned my back on them, and that's when they accepted me! [RCA] said they would give me pretty much freedom to do what I wanted to do.... ''

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