Bruce Hornsby’s new album doesn’t stick with ‘just the way it is’
Bruce Hornsby hit the music scene hard in the late 1980s with hits like “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain,” featuring his high, clear vocals and bright, syncopated piano-playing. So distinctive is his style that it’s spawned articles like “5 Ways to Play Like Bruce Hornsby,” a 2014 Keyboard magazine piece.
But the Virginia native wasn’t content to stay in the radio-friendly, pop music lane. Subsequent songs and musical partnerships have mined just about every other music tradition — including classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, gospel, blues and jam-band ethos.
Over the years, Hornsby has collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead to Phil Collins, Ricky Skaggs, jazzman Jack DeJohnette and British indie folk trio The Staves. And that leaves out scores of others.
Hornsby and his backing band, The Noisemakers, are currently touring behind his 21st album, “Absolute Zero.” They’ll play a July 13 date at the Roxian Theatre in McKees Rocks.
Complex and untrendy
Of the new album, a Pitchfork magazine review warns, “if your awareness of Hornsby stops at the lite-FM radio dial, prepare to be disoriented.”
The headline for a New York Times review states, “Bruce Hornsby’s New Album Is Complex and Untrendy. That’s Why It’s So Good.”
The songs are “dense, literate, hand-played and largely acoustic,” the review says. If that’s not enough to draw serious music fans — or even just the curious — to the Roxian, then maybe the promise of also hearing a couple of the old radio hits will be.
Hornsby took a few minutes recently to answer some questions about “Absolute Zero” and related topics for the Tribune-Review:
Question: Western Pennsylvania audiences are known for their love of oldies/classic rock, and you’re not known for resting on old laurels in concert. What do you say to listeners who expect the same old songs played in the same old way?
Answer: I’m a restless creative soul, and I’m bored quickly. Playing a song the same way at all times is a bit of a prison for me, and I’m always looking to keep my band interested, so I’m always looking for new musical moments that keep the music fresh. That said, I try to play between three and five well-known older songs to placate someone who hasn’t followed along through the years.
Q: Reviewers have described “Absolute Zero” in terms like “avant-pop” and “mind-expanding theater for the ears.” For myself, I can hear a little bit of everything from bluegrass to disco to psychedelia (and more). How would you describe it, both in terms of themes and the music itself?
A: I prefer to let others describe, but I’ll call it “chamber-pop” because there’s so much orchestration, from 20-piece string orchestras to smaller string ensembles and yMusic, the NYC chamber group.
Q: I was particularly intrigued by the song “Cast-Off,” featuring Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) – it seems both purely Hornsby and purely Vernon at the same time. He’s another artist known for continually pushing his music in new directions. Could you tell a little about the process of recording that song?
A: Sure, it’s sort of a fun story. So Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Brad Cook invited me to come to Eau Claire, Wis., to work on new music and play a gig with them in April 2018. I came bearing gifts: film music compositions I thought Justin may respond to. One of the pieces he liked, maybe the first one, was a cue that I called “Cast-Off.”
I often title my instrumental pieces based on the source of inspiration that led to the composition. I had decided I needed to write a sort-of semi-grand end-credit piece, so listened to some score music on YouTube. I was listening to the end piece from Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away,” and got an idea from that (my pieces end up sounding nothing like the inspiration). I called it “Cast-Off” for that reason.”
We were working on the piece and Justin said to me, “’Cast-Off’ is a good title, why don’t you try working from that?” So I dug into that idea, and came up with these words depicting someone (who) accepts and even embraces rejection, a song about humility and patience in the face of this. Justin added the B-section (pre-chorus) and we were off.
Q: Your musical collaborators span both generations and genres – do you have a list of other musicians you’d still like to work with?
A: As far as a bucket list goes, I don’t have one; any list I may have had has been pretty much filled in at this point. Paul Simon asked about my playing on his last record, and of course I said an enthusiastic yes, but alas, it never came together.
Q: Any other genres you still plan to delve into?
A: I would say that I’m still trying to become adept at all of the areas in which I’ve been working so far. There’s enough there for two lifetimes if you’re really trying to master them, and I’m no master yet!
Q: On the topic of your vast list of collaborators, has anyone ever suggested a game of “Six Degrees of Bruce Hornsby”?
A: That would be fun. I think it may be difficult to connect me to, for instance, Ravi Shankar, because I’ve never met any of the Beatles (although Ringo did ask me through channels to be a member of one of his “All-Starr Bands” in the mid-90s) and I’ve never met Norah Jones.
But knowing and working with Eric Clapton over the years moves me closer, one degree of separation.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .