Pianist will play Akron's Goodyear Theater on Sunday night, bringing sounds from a wide-ranging career as well as the early hits (because, well, some things will never change).
Casual pop music fans of a certain age will likely remember singer/songwriter/pianist/dulcimer player Bruce Hornsby for a couple of his platinum-selling, mid-1980s No. 1 hits: the gently grooving, reflective Grammy-winning “The Way It Is,” the piano synth-pop of “The Valley Road,” “Across The River” and “Look Out Any Window.”
But since the '80s, Hornsby, 64, who will be performing at The Goodyear Theater on Sunday, has cut a wide, snaking path through the music world.
His catalog of nearly 20 albums as a solo artist, collaborator and band leader with The Range and his current group, The Noisemakers, dips its toes in many genres and styles from piano pop to bluegrass, to trio jazz piano, to being a member of the Grateful Dead. He's worked with a wide array of artists including Chaka Khan, Ricky Skaggs, Bob Seger, Pat Metheny, Ornette Coleman, Eric Clapton, Sting and indie folk king Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Hornsby has also had a 20-plus year partnership scoring films and television shows for director Spike Lee including “Clockers,” “BlacKkKlansman” and the series “She’s Gotta Have It.”
“Absolute Zero,” Hornsby’s latest album, is an at times musically knotty collection of pop tunes informed by Hornsby’s love of modern classical composers and film scoring, with shifting rhythms and often angular but somehow still catchy piano lines. The album features several collaborators old and new including Vernon, legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, and folk trio The Staves.
Hornsby responded to questions about his latest work and career in an email exchange.
"Absolute Zero” is your first solo album in nearly 21 years, but you've been quite prolific. Any particular reasons for the gap, and how do you know when it's time to make a "Bruce Hornsby" album as opposed to one of your many collaborative affairs? The album feels and sounds pretty fast and loose. Were there any specific inspirations for this batch of tunes?
This record was about me in a studio with pre-composed and performed tracks (Spike Lee film music I had written), composing lyrics and melodies over the music. So, although it was expanded upon by subsequent selected special guests, it was very much a “solo record” conceptually, and in its execution.
The “what’s in a name” idea deserves comment. The first two records that were titled “Bruce Hornsby and The Range” were for the most part solo records; me playing with a drum machine; certainly almost all of the well-known radio songs were that. The third Range record really was a band record, and I think that’s very apparent if one compares it to the earlier ones. "Harbor Lights," "Hot House," and "Spirit Trail," my “solo” records of the nineties, were very much band affairs — more so than the Range records — as was "Big Swing Face" in 2002. "Halcyon Days" (2004) was a little of both. So the picture is very blurry, and the band/solo designations are usually not indicative of the process. We just started calling the current band The Noisemakers around the middle 2000s, so the records bore that name after that, until this one.
Lyrically there are some pretty heavy tunes, on the album (“Meds,” “White Noise,” “Never In This House”). Do these kinds of songs come from personal places, or do you prefer to inhabit a "character" when exploring these darker areas?
"Meds" is personal, but not my own story. A bit of [novelist] D[avid] F[oster] Wallace influence there, as on "White Noise," which is influenced by his great, unfinished final novel "The Pale King." So there is no “character” there, just a word picture painted about IRS tax examiners and CPAs as American heroes. “Never In This House” was written lyrically by my old friend Chip deMatteo, so I’m “inhabiting” characters there.
Throughout "Absolute Zero," your piano playing is unique ("Fractals," "Blinding Light," the main riff in "Voyager One" for example). Somehow you manage to take elements of the Riley/Glass/Reich world and come up with what is still basically a "weird" but catchy and bouncy pop song. Are any of the minimalists/modernists big inspirations — and if so, has it been a conscious effort to incorporate some of their systems and techniques into your songwriting? Musical osmosis?
Yes, very astute of you; that’s exactly the influence on those songs (“Fractals,” “Voyager One” and “Take You There”) Minimalism meets different types of funk. On "Blinding Light" and the middle section of "Take You There," the influences are more avant-garde, dissonant and atonal; "Blinding Light" references Elliott Carter and Gyorgy Ligeti, and the "Take You There" midsection comes, again, from Carter. I’ve loved modern classical music in its many forms for several years, and it’s been creeping insidiously into my songwriting for the best 10-15. There are also John Cage prepared piano samples surfacing throughout the record.
With 64 years of life and 30+ years of professional music-making, what keeps you searching for new sounds and what draws you to your many and often younger collaborators such as yMusic (good stuff!) on the new album?
I'm a lifelong student, always in search of new inspiration and new musical areas to explore — and new literary areas to explore as a reader; to broaden my knowledge and aesthetic as a writer and a curious person in the world. So, I guess I would say that my stylistic journey over the years has been a natural and organic one, based on what moves and interests me.
The younger collaborators have been surfacing in my life for several years now, mostly stemming from my friendship with Justin Vernon and then his rather large world of like-minded and very creative musical mates.
Many folks may be surprised by your long-running collaboration with Spike Lee, how did that happen, why has it lasted and what is it about film and television scoring that appeals to you as a composer?
There are many, many collaborations of mine through the years that are surprising to people — generally because they have a very limited view of what I do and my musical life. I met Spike in 1992 through our mutual friend Branford Marsalis, because Spike wanted to meet me. He directed a video for me that year; Chaka Khan and I wrote the end-title song ("Love Me Still") for his great 1995 film "Clockers," and on and on, until in 2008 he asked me to start scoring for him. I’m like Tom Hagan in “The Godfather”; I only have one client as a film composer, and that is Spike. I like my composer gig with him because it forces me to compose, to produce, and he just likes what I do. Writing “on assignment” forces one to create, and so this has been a great catalyst for me.
You often play shows without a predetermined set list. What is it about that situation you enjoy? There are many more famous artists who seemingly feel and sometimes publicly complain about feeling a bit trapped by their hit catalog. How have you managed to cultivate a fan base adventurous enough to follow your various musical paths. Just do whatever you want and hope they keep listening and coming out to see you?
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. We almost never use a set list. In Akron, we will wing it — but I will do that keeping certain goals and desires in mind; finding a balance between the new music, true fan and band favorites, and placating the soft-core fan who only knows six songs from 1986-90.
What's up with you and the dulcimer? Seems much more harmonically limiting than the piano. Is that one of its features?
The dulcimer has been a small but gradually growing part of my music for years, starting with my purchase of one at the Galax Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in 1996. It appeared on the song "Shadow Hand" on my record "Spirit Trail" in '98, again on "Mirror On The Wall" from "Halcyon Days" in 2004, and then in 2009 it was totally featured on "Prairie Dog Town" from "Levitate." We started playing mini dulcimer sets from '09 on, and I started writing more songs on the instrument, culminating in the growing collection of dulcimer songs that made the record “Rehab Reunion” necessary.
As an instrumentalist, I'm not taking the dulcimer to anyplace special — although the way I play it is fairly idiosyncratic. I'm terrible at it, but that doesn't stop me! I actually embrace its limitations because they lead me to write simple music; never a bad thing.
And now, The Obligatory '80s Question: Were you surprised by the massive success of "The Way It Is" and was that period of "mainstream fame" as pressure-packed and disorienting as is often described by hit-making artists? Did you ever feel pressure from fans or the record company to come up with "That's Still Just The Way it Is, pt. 2!" or some such? Or, did you know even back in the '80s that the mainstream pop path wasn't for you and you needed to ride it out and then carve out your own?
"The Way It Is" was a real fluke, a wonderful accident commercially; most of the execs at RCA thought it was a B-side. It broke in England, on BBC Radio One, then spread internationally, and then became a hit in the U.S. So the label pretty much left me alone, and allowed me to do what I wanted to do musically for eighteen years! They were very supportive, through eight [company] presidents (!). The first record sold around 2.5 million, and then the second record sold almost 2 million on the strength of the hits "The Valley Road" and "Look Out Any Window," so they seemed very satisfied.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.