Improv Jazz Genius Bruce Hornsby Returns to Miami on Latest Album, Rehab Reunion

Bruce Hornsby: "I was always game for winging it and improvising.”EXPAND
Bruce Hornsby: "I was always game for winging it and improvising.”
Courtesy Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby has won a handful of Grammy Awards including Best New Artist in 1987 and Best Bluegrass Album in 1990, worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and Elton John to Stevie Nicks and Eric Clapton, and played over 100 shows with Grateful Dead until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. So maybe it's a tiny stretch to say the improvisational, multigenre keyboardist and singer known for his creative spontaneity onstage is our homeboy.

Still, a 1977 graduate of the University of Miami School of Music, Hornsby earns credit as one of our hometown luminaries. His early albums put him on the verge of superstardom right off the bat, his first hit single, “The Way It Is,” a moving testimonial to the instability of American race relations.

From that point forward, Hornsby has continued to diversify, tampering with his template and expanding his parameters through work for hire with Sting, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Bela Fleck, Huey Lewis, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among others. And whether doing a stint with the Dead or a collaborative album with jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden, he’s always managed to transcend specific genres.

Hornsby’s latest album, Rehab Reunion, finds him returning to his roots, especially on a track called “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.,” which offers a litany of local references to catch, including Dan Marino, Don Shula, Latinos, U.S. 1, and “Little Cuba.” “MIA, FLA, 305,” he sings in its jaunty refrain, like a travelogue detailing a trip — real or imagined — Hornsby might have taken while bumming around during a break from his studies.

“I didn't write the lyrics for ‘M.I.A.,'” Hornsby concedes. “My songwriting partner, Chip deMatteo, wrote them. I imagine he came up with the fun title, ‘M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.’ because that's the way his mind works, and wrote it from there. But I really don't know. I used to spend a good bit of time down there [South Florida]. I started a music program at my old school, UM. But I'm not there as much the last couple of years.”

Still, Hornsby admits he has a special affection for his old stomping grounds. “I could easily live in Miami,” he says. “My wife and I had a place in North Miami Beach for several years, and loved going there. It's such a unique cultural melting pot, so rich in so many ways. Last year, I played a concert with Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony, playing some of my newer, more chromatic, dissonant, dodecaphonic music. Really a glorious experience! There’s so much going on down there, and lots of old friends.”

Hornsby also has particularly fond memories of his days at the U, and the fact that it still comes to mind might be some indication that, unlike the cliche, he likely demurred when it came to recreational activities. “I think I remember most everything from my time as a student in Miami," he says. "It was such a seminal time for me, so important to my development as a musician. I had a great, tough teacher, Vince Maggio, who I still consider to be my teacher. I payed gigs all over the area to put myself through school, and participated in jam sessions in the Foster Building virtually every day, on and on.”

As for Hornsby's stint playing with the Dead, it’s well worth noting that he credits his UM education with giving him his training in the kind of improvisation that the group demanded. “I loved their loose approach," he says. "Although, having been a jazz major at the University of Miami, I was always game for winging it and improvising.”

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