In an age when so many pop stars are auto-tuned, if not ghosted, it is refreshing to see true musicians out there still striving for more, still pushing for better. Piano man Bruce Hornsby, even when he was riding high on the charts, has always challenged himself and his audiences. Before the drum groove and synth pads kick in on 1986’s “The Way It Is,” the listener makes its way through a piano intro that lays the artistic foundation for what lies ahead. Hornsby’s solo about halfway through lifts the whole piece even higher, out beyond the standard tropes and confines of pop music.
Nearly 30 years later, that’s still the way it is with Hornsby’s new, double-live set, Solo Concerts, and its accompanying Fall tour. Here, though, Hornsby works through far more challenging works — modern classical compositions by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Elliot Carter, György Ligeti, and Olivier Messiaen. But he mixes in just enough boogie and Blues to make it go down easy.
To this day, probably the best concert I’ve ever attended was in Boston on the first night of the tour you did with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Shawn Colvin in 1999. From the song selection and pacing to the banter and performances, everything was pitch-perfect. What was your experience of collaborating with that group in that way?
That tour is a great memory. We had such a good time doing it. The approach of everyone on stage together as a band the whole night made it much more special than the standard each-artist-plays-a-set presentation, and the offstage hang was always enjoyable.
Bruce Hornsby
That tour probably hit a lot of sheds which provide a completely different experience than the performing arts centers you play when you are solo. Having graced stages from the Greek Theatre in L.A. to Schermerhorn Symphony Hall in Nashville, what are some of your favorite venues?
I’m an acoustic musician, and often those sheds feel too big. I sometimes, in the past, felt I had to bang, play harder than I wanted to, which isn’t a great experience. So I prefer beautiful halls like the Schermerhorn, and I’m lucky to get to play lots of them on my solo tours.
Do you have a preference for playing solo or with a band? Or do they feed different parts of your artistry?
They are very different modes of expression. The band shows are more like a party, especially when we play places that have no seats, or seats in the back and dancing in the front. The solo concerts are more demanding musically, and sometimes more fulfilling, if I bring it off. It’s a high bar I set in the solo milieu because often I’m playing very demanding music, and my left hand is the band!
Along those same lines, what’s different about the fans who attend your solo concerts and step up to the challenge those performances present compared to the fans who really just want you and the band to play “The Way It Is” exactly like they remember it from college?
In both situations, we’ll draw a diverse group generally comprised of two factions: the group that has taken the entire diverse, varied musical journey that has been my career — a group that generally wishes I would never play the old hits; they want to hear the more adventurous music from that last 20 years or so — and a group that only knows the old hits and wants to hear them replicated like the old records. I try to be kind to both groups.
It feels like, if your fans trust you, they’ll let you sort of be their sherpa into and through this brave, new musical world you are presenting. They’ll let you lift and guide the conversation while expanding their minds and horizons. Is that your goal?
I’m hoping the soft-core fans will be open to the new and maybe enlightened and engaged by some of what they hear, and I’m hoping that I can still surprise the ones who are there for musical adventure.
To meet people where they are, you include some down-home blues and boogie, but then you veer off into the contemporary classical compositions. How — or maybe where — do those forms converge for and in you?
Some of the old-time traditional piano styles that I play are very demanding on a virtuosic level. I feel that modem chromatic, dissonant styles broaden the expressive range of my improvising, and so I combine the two disparate elements. It’s also really fun to combine them! I like grooves and I like advanced harmony — why not attempt a marriage of the two?

The 20th century classical works that you seem to be drawn to lack the sweeping romanticism of other periods. What kinds of melodies challenge and chase you — as both a musician and a music lover?
The “sweeping romanticism” doesn’t really send me. I like the more stark, astringent, spiky qualities of the modern. Pointillism, anyone?
Do you ever wish you’d been a guitar guy instead of a piano man? It’s not as portable, but you can bust out Schoenberg and Webern which are far more impressive than, say, “Free Bird.”
Schoenberg, Webern, Carter, and Ives may be more challenging than “Free Bird,” but they are clearly not the language of the people. I love simple music; some of my favorite songs that I’ve written are the simplest, but I love these composers, as well. I would love to play the guitar with the harmonic knowledge that I gained from my years of piano studies. One note on an electric guitar speaks much more strongly than one note, or even one chord, on the piano.
Even though you’ve said that virtuosity on the piano is unattainable for you, do you feel accomplished as a pianist? What’s the bar that you’re trying to clear?
Virtuosity is relative; there are levels of virtuosity that I can and have attained. I’ll know it if I get there whether or not I’ve reached a level that I could honestly call a great level of virtuosity. I started really late for a pianist, age 17, so that’s my excuse. But I still work at it a good bit, and will continue.
On your current tour, you are giving away the new double live record with each concert ticket. That’s probably not something you — or any chart-topping artist — would have done 25 years ago. And you don’t have a $100 million buy-out from Apple backing the move. What do you make of the music industry of today? Has being part of the Grateful Dead shifted your approach or views at all?
I don’t consider it a giveaway, I feel that the cost of the CD is built into the cost of the concert ticket. Of course, the music business is un-recognizable from when I started. I feel lucky to have had 15 or so years in the music biz when music was prized, was valued as a commodity, a product worth paying for. Now, for me, in my senescence, I just want the music to be heard. I just want to help it get out there to people. We used this same approach on our box set Intersections in 2006, and it went very well, so we’re trying it again with Solo Concerts.
This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.