Piano star lightens up on the keys

Listen to "Big Swing Face" and it's easy to get caught up in the pulsing beat, the catchy refrains, the swirling rhythms.

What you may not guess is that you're listening to the latest album from acclaimed musician Bruce Hornsby.

For starters, there's almost no piano. And while Mr. Hornsby has always incorporated a wide range of styles into his work – he won the bluegrass Grammy in 1989 – this is his first venture into the realm of dance music and, as he calls it, "sonic trickery." Hornsby, currently on tour, says it's caused some surprise – but may not be as much a stretch for him as it seems.

"I've gotten some reaction to this from people saying, 'Oh, this is the first thing you ever did I liked!' " he says with a laugh, speaking by phone from Salt Lake City. "And it's very different. But really, we have been very different for years. If you listen to my last record or the record before that and then listen to my first record, it's very different. We just moved on and on from that."

That first record, "The Way It Is," put Hornsby on the musical map in 1986, going triple platinum and earning him a Grammy for best new artist. Many of the album's songs, from the title song to "Mandolin Rain" and "Every Little Kiss," are still the ones many people connect with Hornsby's name. "The record company always picks the yearning, beautiful, sensitive ones [to play on the radio]," he laughs.

But Hornsby, considered by many a "musician's musician," refuses to be defined by his hits. Some of the creations he's most proud of are obscure: a song on a Keith Jarrett tribute record that he performed with a brass band, for instance, or his rendition of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe's "Darlin' Corey." And the tongue-in-cheek humor that abounds on "Big Swing Face" has been turning up in his lesser-known songs for years.

Still, even Hornsby admits that he had doubts when David Bendeth, his A&R representative from RCA records, first pushed him in this direction. He had another set of songs he'd been working on, about his twin sons, that he felt really good about. Mr. Bendeth agreed they were good – but not different enough. He needed to try something new.

"I'm a little skeptical of what I call 'fashion music,' " says Hornsby. "I've always tried to have my music be all substance and no style.... I wanted the uniqueness of what I do to be coming from the harmonic element – the chords I play."

But after Bendeth employed his "sonic trickery," says Hornsby, "frankly, I like it. There were certain things he was doing for me – the way he was making my voice sound, for instance."

In the end, Hornsby decided to see Bendeth's suggestion as a challenge – a chance "to try on some new musical clothes."

The one thing he was determined to do, though, was to keep the lyrics fresh and insightful. "I guess lyrically, I've always thought this sort of music was a little thin," he says. "So if I was going to deal in this area, I was going to take it to a lyrical place where no one who does that music would go."

For inspiration, he dug into his past – to his "days as the only white boy on the basketball team." His personal favorite is "Sticks & Stones," which offers a twist on the childhood refrain: "Sticks and stones can break my bones/ But your words always hurt me the most/ My scars will heal but the slurs won't."

"I think the verses of that song sound like no one else lyrically, and I like that. It's hard to do that after 50 or 60 years, or longer, of popular music."

Now, Hornsby is already looking for new stylistic directions to move in – and plans to return to the instrument he knows best. His next record will likely be a collection of live solo piano performances. Then there are the songs about his sons, which he still plans to release, and a bluegrass collaboration with country artist Ricky Skaggs.

"I always felt that was my job," says Hornsby – "trying to find a place for a lot of playing and virtuosity on the instrument in this music.... This was just a busman's holiday from that job."

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