McPartland's Unlikely Guest an Undeniable Success
Bruce Hornsby is obviously known as a pop star, ever since his 1986 debut The Way It Is. Unless you were in a coma in late 80s, you can still hum that title track. The album sold over two million copies, generated three Top-20 hits, and earned him the Best New Artist Grammy Award. He went on to write more Top-10 hits for himself, Huey Lewis and Don Henley. In the early 90's, Hornsby toured with the Grateful Dead after the death of their long-time keyboardist, Brent Mydland.
Thirty-six years his senior, English pianist Marian McPartland hardly requires an introduction. Suffice it to say, she's been performing jazz since World War II, and has produced the Piano Jazz radio program for twenty-seven years. Her guests (and the resulting 30+ CD library) read like a veritable who's who of jazz history.
This "meeting of minds" is less odd than it sounds. Undoubtedly, Hornsby's style was infinitely "jazzier" than most 1980 pop radio fodder. He studied classical and jazz piano at Berkley and University of Miami, and drew heavily upon the styling of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. As it turns out, McPartland invited Hornsby to Piano Jazz many years ago, but he declined until he felt more comfortable as a soloist.
The last 15 years of Hornsby's life have been spent strengthening his stride technique, a style which requires total independence of the hands. It certainly paid off. He now plays brilliant ostinato bass rhythms with the left hand while simultaneously playing wildly free melodic runs with the right. The only problem is, all those years of obsessing about it make him seem a little over-zealous to prove himself. Whereas McPartland speaks of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and Thelonius Monk as revered, inspired colleagues; Hornsby makes it sound like name-dropping or competition. Eh, he's a rock star, after all.
The performances on Piano Jazz: McPartland/Hornsby are great listening, and so are the discussions. The title "Conversation" rings ironic considering Hornsby can be a bit pushy and prone to break into McPartland's original thoughts. His demeanor didn't seem to ruffle her too much until he labeled Bill Evans "cocktail jazz." It's really too bad we can't see her face (or perhaps the producers behind the glass,) because Hornsby suddenly back-peddles on a few occasions. Mind you, none of these complaints should deter you from listening for yourself, they make it all the more fascinating.
Where else will you hear "The Way It Is" performed convincingly alongside songs by Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk? Piano Jazz is designed to be accessible to all music fans, but let's face it: this is "musician's music" and can only be fully appreciated as such. Knowledgeable jazz fans familiar with the "source-texts," techniques employed, and which rules are being broken, will absolutely adore this CD.
McPartland and Hornsby unite in a way only virtuosos can. It's nearly impossible to discern who is playing what, but then maybe that's how it should be. Their seemingly effortless duets are most impressive when you consider how easily they could have spun into total chaos. The best jazz is always precarious and emotional. That's what you'll hear on Piano Jazz: McPartland/Hornsby. Highly recommended.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.