Marsalis, Hornsby find a niche in the music of baseball


How did Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis wind up playing the national anthem before Cal Ripken's record-breaking game last night?

Simple. They're Angels fans.

Hornsby's relationship with the team goes back to a Grateful Dead show in 1991. "You know -- Wally Joyner and Dave Winfield on the stage, stuff like that," he says. So the pianist got into the habit of seeing the team at Camden Yards, the closest major-league stadium to his Williamsburg, Va., home.

"Every time the Angels come [to Camden Yards], we come up, if I'm around," he says. "It's a three-hour drive for us up 95. We were up here in June, for the three-game series there, and they were setting us up for these games."

Marsalis credits Hornsby for bringing him into the fold. "He introduced me to the Angels when I was out in Los Angeles," says Marsalis, referring to the time when he was the music director for "The Tonight Show."

A die-hard baseball fan, Marsalis had been hoping to see Ripken break the record and jumped at the chance when Hornsby mentioned he had tickets.

Initially, the notion of playing at the game hadn't occurred to either. Although Marsalis jokes that "we're national anthem whores," they didn't decide to approach the Orioles until someone at Hornsby's label, RCA, made the suggestion. "They called down to the Orioles organization, and the Orioles said, 'Yeah, sure.' So that's how it got hooked up," says Hornsby.

Hornsby and Marsalis have played the anthem elsewhere -- for an NBA All-Stars game, for the last Celtics game at Boston Garden before it was demolished and for the Ken Burns baseball documentary -- but it isn't something they do often. Clearly, they like to save their performances for things they consider to be "special events."

Watching them rehearse, though, it's hard not to wish they did this every day. Some of that stems from the almost fraternal quality of their musical relationship, as hearing the two trade ideas -- bouncing jazz licks off one another, trading quotes from Keith Jarrett albums -- is a treat for any listener. But there's also a high degree of playfulness to what they do, be it offering a boogie-woogie twist to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," or simply goofing on the echo they got when their rehearsal was piped through the stadium's public address system.

Naturally, they never play the anthem the same way twice, and that sometimes leads to surprises onstage.

Hornsby takes what he describes as a "Bill Evans meets the hymn book" approach to the tune -- mixing lush, jazzy harmonies (the Bill Evans bit) with stately, open-voiced chords (the hymn book) -- and Marsalis loves the way that opens up the song. But, he jokes, once in a while his partner slips in a chord the saxophonist isn't expecting.

"That last time in Boston, he put one chord in there that took me completely by surprise," Marsalis says, laughing. "It made the note I was playing sound totally wrong."

Couldn't he have finessed it, make it seem like he was using that as a passing tone to get to the right note?

"It wasn't a passing tone. It was a clam," he says, using the musician's term for "bad note."

That playing around is fun, but it also explains why Hornsby was more nervous about playing the anthem than he was playing at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last week. "Here's why -- everyone knows the song," he says. "You're so exposed here. Any little clam, and there you are."

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