There is much to be learned about Bruce Hornsby from these endlessly intriguing individual journeys at the keys. He spends this striking two-disc live set (due from Vanguard Records on August 25, 2014) exploring deep into his roots and imagination, pulling out elements both obvious and perhaps never before considered.
Tracks like “Mandolin Rain,” as Hornsby returns to a No. 4 follow up to his charttopping 1986 debut single “The Way It Is,” may be the most instructive of all, since every little feint is played against the broad canvas of shared memory. Hornsby begins, for instance, in a ruminative place — and, absent the track’s original William Bell-inspired hook, audience members don’t immediately place this familiar tune.
It’s only when Hornsby finally reveals the initial lyric that a wave of recognition audibly passes through the crowd. His voice is unbent by time, heartbreakingly resilient. But the complexity of his approach at the piano adds darker colors to every word, deeper meaning to every quiet pause of reflection. In this way, “Mandolin Rain” is experienced anew, like it’s never been heard — like a classical and jazz composition that finds itself reborn on stage with each new arrangement.
Solo Concerts isn’t really about that kind of reminiscence. Hornsby is far more apt to swerve into Schoenberg than he is to, say, rattle back down “The Valley Road.” But when those few moments arrive here, when he plays a song you know like the lines on your own palm, Solo Concerts speaks to an audience beyond those who’d know Schoenberg in the first place — even as it confirms Hornsby’s interpretive stature all over again.