Playback: The Healing Hand of Jonathan Horne

Following the free jazz guitar phenom as he undergoes hand surgery

Jonathan Horne in his bedroom shortly before his recent hand surgery. (Photo by Kevin Curtin)

"Okay, now I'm getting nervous," admits Jonathan Horne, crossing a skyway between a parking garage and the adjoining medical center.

The night before, he'd endured grisly, pre-surgery nightmares, but the morning arises serene. As Horne enters the lobby of an orthopedic practice, the receptionist presents him with paperwork: "You know what to do."

Indeed, he does. This is the third hand surgery in the last nine months for one of Austin's premier guitarists.

These Hands

Horne's hands aren't the big, meaty grabbers you see on some guitarists. They're fair and agile – the way you'd imagine a classical pianist's to look. The profound movements they make on the fretboard of his Mosrite can be described as "free jazz licks with Ventures tone."

"To me, he's the best guitar player in town," says Richard Lynn, whose Self Sabotage label has issued a multitude of releases featuring the 35-year-old Knoxville-born artist, including Friday's collaborative LP with cellist Randall Holt and a forthcoming record pairing him with avant-garde jazz giant Joe McPhee.

Epistrophy Arts maven Pedro Moreno hails Horne's "distinctive and personal approach to free music" and considers him "the kindest person in Austin's music scene."

"The guy listens to so much music and has an amazing and deep knowledge of the most obscure modern jazz, surf, psych rock, and more," lauds Moreno. "Getting kicked out of that rock band was the best thing to happen to him musically."

The improvisational music promoter is referring to White Denim, with whom Horne made a nationally televised Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance in 2016. A microsample of Jonathan's credits since rooting locally in 2004 include: Steve Albini-produced Plutonium Farmers and jazz/rap/grindcore unit Young Mothers – both alongside Norwegian bass phenom Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – plus Book of Shadows, Ichi Ni San Shi, and Jerry Seinfeld's Atrophied Sac.

Broken Rubber Band

Don't type "ruptured hand tendon" into a Google image search. The surgical photos can never be unseen.

Horne's ailing left hand, and trio of surgeries, is a result of disconnecting the tendon from the bone of his ring finger, causing it to recoil into his forearm like a broken rubber band. The guitarist prefers not to discuss the moment when his finger was rendered immobile, pegging it as a "freak accident."

"The doctors thought it was broken and put a splint on it," the Waterloo Records employee recalls. "Three weeks later, it hadn't healed and another doctor told me, 'Your tendon's broken and you need surgery.'"

Imagine possessing an extraordinary talent, then having it hobbled. Like a pitcher with a dislocated shoulder or a comedian with their jaw wired shut, so is Horne saddled with a bum left hand. Ring finger curled over, Horne's pinky has given up too.

He can still skronk on six strings like a jazz genius, however. Problem is, stretch chords and advanced voicings are an impossibility. Re-orchestrating his Young Mothers parts for two fingers, he toured France, Spain, Norway, and Canada this summer, only occasionally feeling substandard.

After an Ontario performance where he spotted Eugene Chadbourne in attendance, Horne nervously showed his stitched up hand to the jazz brainiac. "You poor guy," lamented the guitarist.

Getting Back to 100

The miraculous part of Horne's hand saga involves Thor Harris, the dalai lama of Austin music, who plays with him in Knest.

Horne contacted his bandmates, asking them not to book any gigs because he needed tendon surgery. He recalls getting this message back from Harris: "Hey Johnny Horne, my cousin's a world-class hand surgeon and he helps musicians. I'm gonna hook y'all up.'"

Enter Dr. Alton Barron, founder of the Musician Treatment Foundation, which focuses on repairing shoulder, elbow, and hand problems for professional musicians. The New York-based Barron, using an Austin surgery center that he owns, conducted all of Horne's operations free of charge. The latter estimates they would each cost upward of $30,000 elsewhere, saving him from financial ruin.

"It's one of the worst injuries a musician could have," says Barron, who reconnected Horne's tendon last December, then spent two more surgeries removing irregular scar tissue buildup. "Franky, Jonathan's formed more scar tissue than I've ever seen. Gradually it becomes hard as concrete and his finger curls," reveals the doctor, who's committed to stick with Horne pro bono until he's healed.

While Horne's physical therapist has him doing exercises every 30 minutes, guitar plays a larger role in his recovery. He spends hours a day retraining his fingers and fighting the advance of scar tissue through movement.

"I'm determined this will make me a better musician," he tells me on the morning of surgery. "I'm sounding pretty damn good with half my hand!"

Ask Horne what the worst part of this ordeal is and you might expect him to lament a hindrance of creative expression. Nope.

"It's the pain," he sighs. "Do you know how many nerves you have in your hand? It's brutal."

Après the Knife

It's something Jonathan Horne has repeatedly told himself, "The worst is almost over," but time and again, it's not.

Thirty-six hours after what he hoped would be his final surgery, with eyes puffy from pain meds and his arm wrapped in a cast, he relates a disappointing development: More operations are needed. Dr. Barron plans to replace the damaged tendon with a fresh, unused one from inside his arm.

"I'll have new goods under the hood," smiles the guitarist.

For now, he'll focus on being ready for next month's Young Mothers gig in Switzerland. The next operation's in October and he hopes to have full hand function by January. Even if he doesn't, he understands being his best musical self is a matter of perspective.

"From now on, instead of thinking, 'Oh, it's not gonna be my best,' it's all gonna be my best, just different," he declares. "That's the good thing about this being prolonged: I've processed all the emotions. The shock is over, the denial is over. I'm just happy to play any way I can."

Half Notes

Willie Nelson, unconcerned that Bob Dylan recently did the same, releases an album of Frank Sinatra covers on Sept. 14. Sequel-ish to his 2016 Gershwin collection, My Way teams the country giant with recent favored producer Buddy Cannon and a crack studio band. Preview single "Summer Wind" is stirring and features an astonishingly succinct Nelson guitar solo. Sadly, he missed a perfect opportunity to cover the stoney Frank and Nancy Sinatra duet "Life's a Trippy Thing."

Clearport ATX, a 700-capacity music venue on Sixth and Red River that's historically presented DJs, hosts a big rock show Wednesday with ...Trail of Dead, Think No Think, Billy King & the Bad Bad Bad, and the first American Sharks show since South by Southwest. The two-story venue now has veteran ATX booker David Cotton filling its calendar.

Bob "Bulb" Cannon needs help paying for lung cancer treatment. A behind-the-scenes "fixture" of Austin music who powered local concert production as a specialized electrician for four decades, Cannon built or managed the electric infrastructure at the Austin Opry House, South Park Meadows, the Chronicle's Austin Music Awards and Hot Sauce Festival, Pecan Street Festival, the Backyard, Old Settler's, and more. Donate via GoFundMe: Bulb's Medical Bills.

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Jonathan Horne, Young Mothers, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Thor Harris, White Denim, Pedro Moreno, Epistrophy Arts, Richard Lynn, Self Sabotage, Dr. Alton Barron, Musician Treatment Foundation, Clearport ATX, Bob Cannon

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