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Bruce Hornsby: Absolute Zero
by George Graham
(Zappo Music as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/1/2018)
Most pop musicians who have enjoyed hits tend to stick with the style in which they achieved their success. But there are others for whom musical restlessness is a part of their character, going from one project to the next, sometimes involving very different styles. Bruce Hornsby is one of those artists. He has just released his latest album called Absolute Zero, which is in itself, rather experimental and perhaps a somewhat surprising to those who know him for his 1986 hit The Way It Is, which was dominated by his piano and was a rather rare hit song in the 1980s that took up social issues like poverty, discrimination and inequality.
But Bruce Hornsby has had an interesting and lengthy career. After attending the Berklee College of Music and graduating from the University of Miami with its strong music program, Hornsby eventually became a member of the progressive pop band Ambrosia, then was in the backing band for pop artist Sheena Easton. He formed his group The Range in 1984, which led to his hits with The Way It Is and Mandolin Rain. The Range adjourned in 1991 and around that time Hornsby began performing the Grateful Dead and became a close musical friend with Jerry Garcia, often jamming with him. Also in the 1990s, Hornsby began to move toward jazz influence recording with Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden. He began a series of solo albums, featuring a number of notable guests including people like Bonnie Raitt, Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis and others. In 2007, he recorded a joint album with country and bluegrass luminary Ricky Skaggs, and their collaboration has continued on and off since then. In that same year, Hornsby recorded an album with jazz bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
In the 1990s, Hornsby also began a long-running collaboration with filmmaker Spike Lee composing for and scoring several of Lee’s films, including “Clockers.”
And just to keep things interesting, Hornsby’s last album Rehab Reunion in 2016 did not feature Hornsby on piano at all, but on duclimer.
Now Hornsby it out with Absolute Zero which is one of the more musically eclectic releases in his lengthy career. On it he is joined again by jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, with whom Hornsby had previously collaborated, plus the distinctive chamber music ensemble yMusic, and the English folk group The Staves, who provide some backing vocals. The music is sometimes angular and quirky, sometimes contemplative and for the most part quite different for those who remember his 1980s hits. There are some pieces which combine a kind of edginess with a string orchestra. And there is an interesting touch heard here and there, with Hornsby using samples of altered piano sounds from composer John Cage.
Opening is the title track Absolute Zero, which features jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette with a string orchestra. The lyrics consider the concept of absolute zero in which all molecular activity stops. <<>>
Epitomizing the more musically quirky side of the album is the track called Fractals whose music fits well with the lyrics about jagged and angular shapes as an analogy a relationship. <<>>
One of the jazzier tracks is Cast-Off, a reference to relationship which came to an end. It features a guest vocal appearance by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. <<>>
With a more contemplative sound is Never in This House, which features the chamber ensemble yMusic, who have recorded with Paul Simon, Ben Folds and My Brightest Diamond. The English sister folk trio The Staves provide supporting vocals. <<>>
Also featuring an orchestral arrangement by Rob Moose of yMusic is one my own favorite tracks on the album Voyager One. The long-running spacecraft and its official departure from the solar system provided the inspiration for the track which combines a rock approach along with echoes of the minimalist music of Philip Glass. <<>>
Hornsby appears on dulcimer, as he did on his album Rehab Reunion on the track called Echolocation which takes this record in yet another stylistic direction. <<>>
With lyrics along the same lines as Hornsby’s The Way It Is, is the track The Blinding Light of Dreams with its social commentary, in a kind of angular contemporary classical setting. <<>>
The album ends with Take You There (Misty) its closest thing to the style of Hornsby’s better-known earlier material, though with a string orchestra from Hornsby’s alma mater, the University of Miami. <<>>
With a long and varied career, Bruce Hornsby has released perhaps his most musically eclectic album yet. With influences running from classical minimalist to rock to hints of country, and an interesting collection of guests from jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, to the chamber ensemble yMusic to alternative rocker Justin Vernon, the result makes for fascinating listening, with each track bringing some different stylistic aspect. Hornsby’s material is imaginative and his performances are well-done, though this is as much of an album to highlight the distinctive arrangements and sonic approaches as it is a vehicle for Hornsby to play and sing.
Unfortunately, the album is something of a mess, sonically. We’ll give it a C-minus. There is ham-handed over-compression squashing out all the dynamics of the varied arrangements, in an effort to be loud all the time. There are annoying and pointless effects on Hornsby’s vocals a lot of the time, and some of the mixes are just plain sloppy with instances of electronic buzz, and bad edits on the strings on one of the tracks. One would expect better from an artist with the musical sophistication of Hornsby.
Sonic deficiencies notwithstanding, Bruce Hornsby has again shown his versatility and musical creativity on his latest project.
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