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'Trail' leads Hornsby down improv path 

You can't judge a book by its cover. But musicians often attempt to convey something about the tone of their recordings via the art that adorns their CD booklets. So what was Bruce Hornsby -- the expressive singer, sensitive songwriter and pianist extraordinaire -- thinking when he fronted his latest release, the double-disc "Spirit Trail," with a photo of his bug-eyed Uncle Charlie, complete with a cigarette sticking out of one ear?

"I thought, well, this is a funny-ass picture and wouldn't it be a scream if this picture was all over the world, peering out from the window of the Borders book store and the Tower Records," Hornsby says from a tour stop in Kalamazoo, Mich. "I've always enjoyed getting into the larger arena and messing with it and not taking it too seriously. My videos have always been excuses for me to get my friends on TV. I was just really joking around.'' "I know kids love it," he adds. "That's one thing I can unequivocally say. Anyone I run into under 22 thinks it's the greatest. Maybe there's some older people who for some reason find it off-putting. Well, I don't care about them. I think, 'Loosen up, pal.' It really reflects my personality. Bonnie Raitt (an occasional collaborator) saw the cover and said, "This is it. It's perfect. This is you."

Hornsby, a Virginia native who studied music at the University of Miami and Berklee College of Music in Boston, has never quite followed the path of least resistance. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and with his band, the Range, signed to RCA in 1985. They made a dent on the pop charts with their multiplatinum 1986 debut, "The Way It Is." The title track hit No. 1, while "Mandolin Rain" went top-five. The follow-up, 1988's "Scenes From the Southside," also gained radio presence, thanks to "The Valley Road."

Hornsby began injecting improvisational elements into his sound with 1990's "A Night on the Town," which featured contributions from saxophonist Wayne Shorter, banjo man Bela Fleck and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. By that time, he had earned acclaim as a songwriter, penning "The End of the Innocence" with Don Henley and co-writing "Jacob's Ladder," with brother John Hornsby, for Huey Lewis.

He then disbanded the Range, hooking up with the Dead for an off-and-on relationship that continued after Garcia's 1995 death, with performances with the Other Ones on the touring Furthur Festival.

The song off the new CD "Sunflower Cat (Some Dour Cat) (Down With That)," which samples the guitar riff in the Dead's "China Cat Sunflower," offers a hint of Garcia's influence on the pianist. "I felt he was a real kindred spirit," Hornsby says. "We always had a great connection, musically and personally."

Hornsby dipped into jazz on 1993's "Harbor Lights," with guests including guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Phil Collins and Raitt, and followed a similar path on 1995's "Hot House." He was nearly finished with the music intended to be released as his next recording, a single disc, when he hit the road with the Furthur Festival two summers ago.

"I had all this time on my hands, when you sit around waiting to play, and waiting for the obligatory and usually unrewarding jam at the end of the night," Hornsby says. "So I wrote all these pieces, and I decided, I want to record these, too. The first CD is more about the piano, and the second CD is not much about the piano at all. They were two very different entities. It was hard for me to pick the best from both."

The result is a weighty set of music that offers intense jazz-funk grooves -- informed by a new practice regimen that had the pianist hitting the ivories for five hours a day -- as well as sublime story-songs. The latter include tales of snake handlers ("Preacher in the Ring, Parts. 1 & 2" ), eccentric characters ("Pete & Manny" ) and estranged friends ("Line in the Dust" ).

"It's a serious record, but at the same time, I've always wanted to balance that with some lightness, because I didn't want it to feel ponderous," he says. "I'm not really a fan of the 'woe-is-me' song.

"There's lots of funny moments on this album. People typecast you over the years. All through the records and with this one in particular, there have always been sort of sardonic, comedic moments."

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