Somehow it doesn’t seem possible, but it has now been 20 years since multi-Grammy winner rock/pop pianist Bruce Hornsby burst upon the music world. His highly infectious hit, "The Way It Is," set a totally new tone in the music world. Whether one considers his music to be country pop or rural rock, there is no doubt his musical language, words and artistic concepts are as unique as Mose Allison and Ben Sidran. Always a musician who put musical concerns first, as seen in one way of many by his exquisite piano solos during concerts, Camp Meeting marks the first all-instrumental jazz record Hornsby has ever recorded.
Accompanied by heavy-hitters Jack DeJohnette on drums and Christian McBride on bass, Hornsby aims his unique vision through a set of 11 different tunes. While only three of the tunes are originals, it is Hornsby’s artistic concepts that rule the disc, even on the covers. Opening with a highly convergent view of Ornette Coleman’s highly disjoint "Question And Answers," Hornsby plays with strong bravado, well placed accents and a solo that is respectful of Coleman’s place in the jazz lineage yet still rollicking. Hornsby’s phrases sweep across the piano in flourishes perfectly intersected by McBride’s prodding bass lines. The two are totally in-step at every turn, with DeJohnette lighting the fire throughout.
On the reverse side, when Hornsby could have just taken it easy and swung sweetly through Miles Davis’ "Solar," Hornsby instead turns the trumpeter’s music on its ear through the use of a quasi-Latin beat that never settles in. DeJohnette keeps the light bright by emphasizing back-beats which set the stage for a pair of solos by the other two artists that work towards atonal embellishments while staying tonal the entire time. This great musical moment is just one of many on the disc.
Other standouts include a deeply contemplative duet with McBride on Keith Jarrett’s "Death And The Flower." Here again Hornsby’s musical sense transforms the tune into something new, casting the tune into a new harmonic landscape full of fresh surprises and probing undercurrents. In a similar vein the jazz standard, "We’ll Be Together Again," is reinvented. The harmonic language is changed with the use of open chords which allow ideas to hang for later resolution. The original "Stacked Mary Possum" is like a breath of fresh air with its up-tempo drive and almost barn-dance hipness. For those fearful Hornsby would take a superficial passing fancy at playing jazz, the result will astound. Hornsby digs his feet in the mud of the art and gets himself and his cohorts deeply dirty.
Only occasionally does one hear what one might expect from the pianist. On the self-penned "Camp Meeting" and at times during the cover of Bud Powell’s "Celia," for example, one hears the folksy spirit we’re used to from Hornsby’s previous work. That Hornsby dares to tackle John Coltrane’s "Giant Steps" points towards the artist not being afraid of challenges, and he handles the changes admirably.
Whether Hornsby is willing to give up the lucrative world of more popular forms of music for jazz will only be seen as time progresses; recent work with Ricky Scaggs shows a desire of Hornsby to test himself in other genres. One just hopes he will continue to work in the jazz realm and further develop some truly fine musical sensibilities.