It’s hardly worth noting when a musician has a long and winding career, one built upon upsetting expectations, taking daring sidesteps and largely eschewing their popularity. Except, of course, if that musician is Bruce Hornsby. This is a man who, at the peak of his commercial success, toured with the Grateful Dead, who may or may not play your favorite song or his biggest hit live and who, on his last release, 2016’s Rehab Reunion (with The Noisemakers) traded in his piano for a dulcimer.
His latest, Absolute Zero, doesn’t wholly catapult Hornsby into uncharted terrain. His appreciation for jazz remains intact, as does his uncanny gift for tune and ability to pull on our heart strings at the most unexpected moments. In some ways, this is a spiritual brother to 1993’s Harbor Lights, which saw him collaborating with Phil Collins, Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis and Jerry Garcia. Here, as there, he’s unafraid to turn and embrace the strange.
The opening, titular piece may be the most hook-laden and surreal moment of the entire record: One part hallucinatory requiem for a day (there are moments where one imagines Hornsby and Phish’s Trey Anastasio harmonizing the beautifully abstract lyrics), one part affable jazz amble (Jack DeJohnette guests). It’s a haunting but inviting invitation to a journey filled with references to science and mathematics and their relationship to the heart.
“Fractals” is a dizzying musical exploration that recalls both John Adams and Philip Glass at their finest but it’s also a love song. In lesser hands, it would read as pretentious; here, it’s both subversive and sincere, upsetting what we think we know about sentiment and settings and giving us new nomenclature for both connections and disconnections.
It’s hard to ignore the lyrical front here and yet it would be remiss to not acknowledge the exquisite nature of Hornsby’s playing throughout the album. He plays at sentimentality in the early measures of “Cast Off” (featuring Justin Vernon and Sean Carey) but the piece’s haunting nature and sparse keyboard figures as well as its unexpected rhythmic shifts elevate it to something bold and new. When the piece comes to its conclusion, for instance, one is reminded momentarily of gospel but it’s gospel as imagined in the digital age, where God may as well inhabit the center of zero or be found in an electrical impulse rather than a temple.
Four of these 10 pieces feature contemporary classical unit yMusic and the pairing is nothing short of divine. The collective’s deft but subtle playing helps transform “Never In This House” into a hymn for the twenty-first century, a meditation of the moment just on the other side of the sunrise, the mountain, the faithful wish. (The almighty Staves help as well.) “The Blinding Light Of Dreams,” meanwhile, imagines a collision between Leonard Bernstein and Horace Silver; it’s mind-expanding theater for the ears and proves exhilarating enough that the listener can’t help but cheer for more collaborations between Hornsby and these wunderkinds.
What those pieces and the others here ultimately achieve is further affirmation of Hornsby’s true genius and the sense that he continues to grow and astound the deeper into his career he moves. He is an artist who could have easily hidden behind a few early moments of promise but who, instead, has chosen to walk a tightrope and, most often, has astonished us with his feats. Absolute Zero, which now stands as his finest hour, is no exception.