Bruce Hornsby & The NoisemakersBruce Hornsby, the creatively insatiable pianist and singer-songwriter from Williamsburg, Virginia, always has succeeded on his exceptional gifts, his training, and his work ethic. He became a global name in music by reimagining American roots forms as songs that moved with the atmospheric grace of jazz. “The Way It Is” defined sonic joy on the radio, however as a hit record it also evidenced a thrilling re-structuring, and during the years afterward Hornsby, in staggeringly diverse ways, has kept going.
He has returned to traditional American roots forms, collaborating with Ricky Skaggs. He has played with the Grateful Dead. He has fused the plunk and dazzle of twentieth-century modernist classical composition to singer-songwriter emotional inquiries. He has scored films. He has performed with symphony orchestras. If the sound of an arrogant air-conditioner or a stretch of rude playing caught his ear, he has entered the hallowed doors of the conservatories of punk. So when Hornsby describes Absolute Zero, his new album, as “a compendium of what I like and moves me,” don’t expect perhaps a thing or two new. Prepare for a multi-faceted ride.
A few years ago, Hornsby met Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. “I kept getting these Google Alerts where he shouted me out in the press,” Hornsby says. In time, other musicians praised Hornsby’s work — including Brandon Flowers, who asked him to play on his solo album. In the indie-rock zeitgeist, Bruce Hornsby became a thing.
After Hornsby began working with Vernon, the Wisconsinite invited Hornsby to perform at his Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival. “I’d played a thousand-and-one festivals over the years,” Hornsby says. “This one was by far the most beautiful experience for me. They had a modern classical stage where you could hear Frederic Rzewski pieces. Everything was artful and beautiful, so great.”
Before Hornsby played, The Staves and yMusic appeared. “So I’m listening to this British female vocal trio and Brooklyn chamber music group, going ‘Whoa, who is this?”” Hornsby says. “I loved the women, the chamber music group, the whole thing. What they were doing together was adventurous, a different sound.”
Hornsby’s discoveries that evening ultimately circled back to Williamsburg, where over the last years he has hosted his own festival. After Eaux Claires, Hornsby invited yMusic and The Staves to appear at the Williamsburg event. “That’s when I met them,” he says. “We hit it off and became friends. I asked them to play on what became Absolute Zero. We did a session with yMusic in New York. We worked on six pieces; five ended up on the record. It just went from there. yMusic’s leader Rob Moose started doing some things on his own on some new songs that I would write. Rob arranging on his own – where he puts down twenty different string parts (‘Give me another one! OK, there’s that. Another track! Another track!’) – is quite something to see, working his magic in the studio.”
The genesis of Absolute Zero, however, began within Hornsby’s work as a film composer for writer-director Spike Lee. Hornsby started collaborating with Lee in 1992; ultimately, in 2008, he began scoring for Lee. Since then Hornsby has written six full film scores and contributed incidental music to four others. What began to intrigue him were scoring components known as “cues,” those comparatively brief passages of music used in films to heighten certain narrative visuals and/or spoken developments.
“Over the past decade I’ve written fully 230 different cues,” Hornsby says, “ranging from one to five minutes in length. Through the last ten years of doing this there always were certain cues that sounded like they wanted to be songs, wanted to be developed into something more than just cues, more than just tiny instrumentals setting moods for conversations in a film over dinner, or whatever.” He asked his engineer to make a file of fourteen. Hornsby began working with these Lee cues — lengthening or shortening or repeating them. “You sculpt and shape the music accordingly,” Hornsby says, “ based on the new information you’ve created over top of these cues.”
Then there was the creation of the songs’ lyrics. “For many years, “Hornsby says, “I’ve been interested in literary fiction.” Even in 2019, when literary fiction exists alongside other types of novels and stories, it remains an extensively chronicled and robustly debated kind of writing. Although it was published centuries before rock and roll exploded, literary fiction shares certain values – constant critical scrutiny, for example, as well as absolute freedom on the part of practitioners, even when that sometimes yields some mighty uneasy reading — with indie-rock. Literary fiction can show up on best-seller lists, just like indie-rock occasionally storms charts.
“Like many readers do,” Hornsby says, “I’d dog-ear a page or mark something I thought was well-said, some amazing description of a thimble, say. So I began to think about what for me were the most memorable passages I’d encountered from my reading, the good bits from two writers admire greatly, Don DeLillo and the late David Foster Wallace. On this record, those are my two literary inspirations and guides, Don and Dave.” Hornsby’s songs, both in spirit and memory, function collectively as an hommage to fiction writing that, while often poetic, takes no prisoners.
Ready for the results? Those would be pieces like the opening title track — which features drumming by the legendary Jack DeJohnette — inspired by DeLillo’s Zero K, a book Hornsby describes as about “the cryonic field – or, most baldly put, Ted Williams freezing in a vault somewhere outside Phoenix.” Or “Fractals,” wherein Hornsby compares a relationship with that “rough and fragmented geometrical shape,” as he puts it, “that can be subdivided into parts.” Or “Echolocation,” a stylistic cousin of “Fractals,” that Hornsby calls “one of my musical combines.” He’s remembering the American artist and pop art instigator Robert Rauschenberg, who during the 1950s made famous hybrids of tactile painting and sculpture, where almost anything, assembled just so rightly, goes.
“That aspect of found materials,” Hornsby says, “collages: That’s exactly what my new album is on a musical level. You go into my studio and there’s just crap everywhere – a vibraslap here, a train whistle there, a crappy old violin I’m playing badly. And then there’s my brother playing some dog-shitty violin that’s vibey as hell.”
Hornsby produced Absolute Zero, his pastiche of sounds” as it calls the album, with assists from Tony Berg, Vernon, and Brad Cook. Some songs, like “Never in This House,” expose traditional Hornsby songwriting semi-nakedly; others, like “Voyager One” – “sort of chamber art-pop meets Prince,” Hornsby says – and “The Blinding Light of Dreams” – with a groove that Hornsby points out dates back to “Serpentine Fire” by Earth, Wind & Fire – re-stage U.S. r&b as fluidly as the music elsewhere refers to an American modernist composer like Elliott Carter. “Meds,” for example, a particular tour de force of Hornsby/Moose featuring special guitar by Blake Mills, blossoms into gripping ‘60s soul choruses. “Cast Off” manages to animate a rare style – miserablist polyrhythms – without skimping on the funk itself.
“White Noise” Hornsby considers “the Wallace moment.” It offers a passionate singer with a string quartet backing him. “The narrative comes from Wallace’s The Pale King,” Hornsby says, “a novel about boredom, about IRS tax examiners as unlikely yet convincing American heroes.” And then “Take You There (Misty),” written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, concludes the sequence with romanticism as re-ordered by Hornsby via memories of Steve Reich’s and Philip Glass’s sonically floral minimalism.
A ride. There is precedent for musical artists moving from the mainstream of popular music to…somewhere else: Ohio-born Scott Walker, ruling the airwaves with The Walker Brothers in early-‘60s Britain, then concocting uniquely dark-toned symphonic solo albums followed by uncharted lands of vocal compositions even much bleaker. David Byrne, determined that the late-70s downtown Manhattan freedom of Talking Heads expand to include pop styles all over the known universe. Robbie Williams, absolutely dead-set on not letting his ‘90s boy-band years preclude pop and rock and swing styles done with uncommon erudition.
This stripe of music evolution over time clearly has another member to add to its small and restless club. It’s Bruce Hornsby, a great restructuralist from the beginning and onward. Absolute Zero constitutes absolute 2019 proof. And all you need to hear it is a set of open ears.
Over the course of more than a dozen years and six studio albums, Amos Lee has continued to evolve, develop, and challenge himself as a musician. With SPIRIT, he makes his biggest creative leap yet.
Most notably, for the first time, Lee acted as his own producer. While his last two albums bore the stamp of strong producers—Joey Burns of Calexico on 2011’s Mission Bell (which debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200, Amazon, iTunes charts, and spun off a hit single with “Windows are Rolled Down”) and Jay Joyce (Little Big Town, Eric Church, Cage the Elephant) on 2013’s Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song—Lee finally felt ready to take over the helm.
“I’ve been wanting to produce my own record for a long time,” he says, explaining that he met with numerous candidates before concluding that he should make the move. “What I wanted to provide was a place for musicians to come and feel they were able to express themselves, and contribute in their own voice the way I was able to contribute in mine.
”Lee’s sense of ambition for SPIRIT largely derived from his own live performing experiences in recent years. “Working with folks like the LA Philharmonic and the Mobile, Alabama Community Gospel Choir opened my mind to the possibility of pushing the edges of arrangement away from solitary moments into more collaborative, community experiences,” he says. “These were transformative creative opportunities that I never dreamed I would have. To stand on stage and be equal parts participant and observer during these career- defining moments was such a thrill, and I credit the singers, arrangers, and conductors for being so open and generous to the songs.”
Along with such monumental events as working with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (a performance which yielded Lee’s most recent release, Live from Red Rocks), being a band leader over the last decade has also helped Lee hone his craft as an arranger. “I have a great, great band—the most gentle, genuine, musically open-minded people,” he says. “I push them some, but they always respond with creativity, and they inspire me to open things up musically. The versatility of my live band has been a gradual concept I’ve been working on since I started playing at the club The Tin Angel in Philly in 2002. Back then, we would play three- or four- hour shows. We had horn sections, violins, extended jams, improvisational songs, and whatever else would come from the ether. This current group of players I have on the road with me has re-inspired me to be more open, and less protective. I think SPIRIT reflects this attitude, and the vibrations are very much reflections of the connections.
“I’ve always loved such a wide range of music.” Lee adds, discussing some new influences, which were pulling him toward a new sonic direction. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Schoolboy Q, Drake, the earlier stuff by
The Weeknd, and I was wanting to open up that box a little more,” he says. “I’ve always loved ’90s R&B, and now with streaming services, it’s so easy to sample so much new music.”
To begin the new project, he began assembling musicians who he felt could blend a dynamic yet organic marriage of modern rhythm with classic instrumentation. “I chose the players because I had this instinct and hunger to challenge myself and expand,”says Lee, “and the foundation of this record was built when I chose the rhythm section.”
A performance by the Robert Glasper Trio in Philadelphia led Lee to the realization
that Mark Colenburg was the drummer he was looking for. “I remember watching Mark play with such incredible facility and musicality,” he says. “He’s such a diverse and soulful listener. It was one of those eureka moments, and he elevated everything so much.”
Lee had known bassist Adam Blackstone (who’s played alongside artists from Jay-Z to Al Green to Justin Timberlake) for years, but had never worked with him. “Adam is a genius,” he says. “He’s playing and hearing everything four bars ahead of everyone else. As a first-time producer, he was such a blessing to have.” Finding a three-day window when both of these busy players were available, Lee—along his live band’s musical director, Jaron Olevsky—went to Nashville. They knocked out ten songs, most in one or two takes, and the core of SPIRIT was formed.
“We had never played with this kind of rhythm section before,” says Lee. “And we came away from these sessions with a hybrid sound I wasn’t able to find in my previous records, but which I’ve always gravitated to as a listener—real gospel-soul-R&B stuff.”
This new energy is most apparent in a song like “Vaporize,” which served as a jumping-off point for Lee’s vision of the record. But it was equally important that the album’s more straightforward, “singer- songwriter”-style songs were infused with a different approach. “With something like ‘Highways and Clouds,’ I didn’t want to just do the standard waltz feel that’s led by the acoustic guitar,” he says. “I wanted to add dimensions to the arrangements and try to transform them, rhythmically and instrumentally, so that the album was cohesive. The demo versions of these songs are remarkably different from what came out through the recording process, and it was so much fun to explore feels and textures, and bear witness to the transformation.
“The song ‘One Lonely Light’ had kind of a small, short verse with a sweeping chorus,” he continues. “I was always under the impression that if you just write a good song and play it, that’s the magic of it—which is not untrue, but now I also want to think about arrangements that can be impactful in a live setting as well. On my first album, I didn’t think about any of that, and Lee Alexander did such a great job making that album all about me and my songs and voice. But I’ve picked up enough information and experience that now I can inject what I’ve learned from working with so many great producers into helping mold arrangements that are more in tune with what I’m doing live.”
Not that it was easy learning the ropes as a producer. “It’s not always magic-making,” says Lee with a laugh. “There’s a lot of grinding it out, with people you maybe don’t have a lot of history with, but it was such a joyous experience, even in those harder creative times.”
For Amos Lee, SPIRIT is the fulfillment of dreams and aspirations—musical, personal, and professional—that he’s had for a long time. “All you can ask for as an artist is the chance to create what you hear and feel inside of yourself,” he says. “The performances by everyone gave me such a strong place to draw from, and being more connected to the arrangements made it easier and more fun to sing. For my first time producing, I could not have been luckier—I was able to get into the heart of every single moment of this record.”
July 20th, 2019
Tickets go on sale March 22nd.
Doors: 6:00pm (ends at 10:00 PM)