When you get right down to it, Bruce Hornsby's biggest problem is that he's just a guy who can't say no.

He doesn't quite phrase it that way, of course. Ask him about his incredibly busy schedule, and he'll say that all he does are "things that come my way that are enjoyable, just things that I'm asked to do and that I want to do."

Which sounds reasonable enough, until he starts rattling off a few of the things he was "asked to do." When not playing with his own band, the Range, he works as a part-time pianist with the Grateful Dead (in fact, he's calling from Kansas City, where he'd played with the Dead only the night before), but that's only the most visible of his many side projects.

He contributed two songs to the soundtrack of the hit film, "Backdraft," and has made cameo appearances on albums ranging from Bonnie Raitt's latest to the debut of hard rockers Liquid Jesus.

It isn't just his playing that's in demand, either; since helping Don Henley write "The End of the Innocence," Hornsby has been much in demand as a musical collaborator, and is thrilled to have worked on a song with Robbie Robertson for the ex-Band man's next album. And all that is on top of Hornsby's work producing Leon Russell's next album, and the track Elton John asked him to contribute to an upcoming charity album.

"A lot of it just comes under the heading of, 'How do you turn down Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt or Bob Seger or whoever else calls?' " Hornsby admits. "Frankly, I'm pretty flattered that I get all these calls from people I've always admired."

Even so, he has to draw the line somewhere. "At this point, I'm trying to clear out my schedule," he says. "The only thing I've committed to in the last couple months is to do some music for Spike Lee. Other than that, I'm trying to stop doing all this.

"I'm really sort of antsy to get back to me."

But what does "getting back to me" really mean for Bruce Hornsby?

It's not simply playing the hits, that's for sure. In fact, Hornsby seems positively appalled at the thought of being defined by his hits. "We never thought of ourselves as a commercial band," he says. "Bruce Hornsby to a lot of people is 'The Way It Is' and 'The End of the Innocence' with Don Henley. I'm really proud of those records, but that's really not all that I do.

"It was a very flukey thing that 'The Way It Is' was such a huge record," he adds. "Because that was not an obvious top 40 hit. And really, neither were the rest of them. But we sort of became, in some people's minds, pigeon-holed because of that; sort of, 'Oh, you have a hit, that's what you are.' But we never thought of ourselves that way."

Instead, Hornsby sees himself as "a composer and also sort of a jazzer," someone whose creative energies are spent trying to balance the urge to write with the need to play.

That's one reason why he and the Range enjoy the concert circuit -- playing live leaves more room for the band to stretch out. "It gets very interesting, with a lot of disparate styles musically going on. And frankly, people like it. I think the reactions to our live shows tend to be, 'We liked this more. We came expecting to hear just the pretty piano, and there was more than that.'

"Obviously, I don't need to solo in every song," he adds. Nor does he always need to improvise. "For instance, the demo that got me signed had 'The Way It Is' on it, and that solo was improvised. It was something I just tossed off," he says.

"But when we got to the record, everyone had gotten so used to solo on the demo that when I played anything else, the people in the studio would always say, 'Well, that's OK, but it's not as good as the demo.' So finally I said, 'Oh, hell, I'm just going to learn that damn solo and play it again.' "

Given Hornsby's interest in improvisation and the joy with which he approaches concertizing, it might seem that the next logical step for him would be a live album with the Range. But that's not the way Hornsby sees it.

"I want to make a great studio record first," he says. "I don't think I've done that, and it's not a question of songs. Basically, the history of me and my band is a bunch of good songs not fully realized on record.

"Frankly, I've always put out records for short-sighted reasons. Like, 'Oh, we want to tour this summer,' 'The band needs to work so they can pay the bills,' that sort of thing. Which are valid reasons on one level. But in the end you have to live with what you've done on an album, and if you settle for less than great, well, then you're stuck with that.

"For instance, after our first record, RCA send out to radio a CD of some live cuts, called 'The Way It Is Tour Live.' I would have liked to have called it, more appropriately, 'The Way We Wished The Record Had Sounded,' you know?

"Obviously, that's a blanket statement," he adds, "and some recordings are better than others. But I don't think we've ever been great record-makers, so I'm going to take my time and really get it right."

Bruce Hornsby When: July 10, 7 p.m.

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Tickets: $20 pavilion, $15.50 lawn.

Call: 730-2424 for information, 481-6000 for tickets.

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