CD Review of Camp Meeting by Bruce Hornsby/Christian McBride/Jack DeJohnette

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Camp Meeting
starstarstarstarno star Label: Legacy
Released: 2007
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To people who only know him through his lite-FM mid-‘80s hits, the phrase “Bruce Hornsby jazz album” may conjure horrific nightmares of fusion-y Quiet Storm smoothness – a nauseating sax solo here, the tinkling of synth keys there, and perhaps a little slap bass if things get mildly funky. But as any Hornsby fan could tell you, there was never any danger of the restless pianist straying into Bob James territory on Camp Meeting, his first straight-ahead jazz project. And it is straight ahead: for the most part, the record may as well have been titled Straight, No Chaser, after the Thelonious Monk song that, yes, the trio covers here.

Of course, straight jazz ain’t necessarily straight – and Camp Meeting kicks off with some decidedly curvy stuff, specifically “Questions and Answers,” the recorded debut of an Ornette Coleman composition. As jazz fans without degrees in music theory have long known, Coleman’s squirrelly relationship with chords is difficult to make sense of in conversation, let alone as it’s pouring through the speakers, and by leading with such an inaccessible opener, the album lets you know it means business.

For the remainder of the album’s 11 tracks, the trio runs between Hornsby originals and a series of well-chosen covers, including a wonderfully improvisational take on Miles Davis’ “Solar,” a tender reading of Keith Jarrett’s “Death and the Flower,” a wonderful drum-and-bass flavored rendition of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and a beautiful run down “We’ll Be Together Again,” occasionally covered by Hornsby in concert.

The trio doesn’t shy away from heavy hitters, in other words, and nor should they – Hornsby’s rhythm section here consists of perhaps the most highly regarded young bassist in jazz and a drummer who played with Bill Evans and Miles Davis. The idea of Hornsby playing with McBride and DeJohnette might wrinkle the noses of some purists, but it shouldn’t; he’s been weaving jazz threads through his records for over a decade, and studying the form much longer than that. These guys all know what they’re doing, and what’s more important, they love what they’re doing – which is why, even if you’re not a hardcore jazz fanatic, you’re liable to get as much joy out of this album as you would out of watching a party in another language. Even if you aren’t sure exactly what’s going on, you can make out enough to put a smile on your face. And for the fanatics? Camp Meeting is liable to go down as one of the most thoroughly entertaining commercial jazz releases of 2007. Straight, no chaser.

~Jeff Giles