"When I play music, I guess I'm what you'd call an ecstatic," says Bruce Hornsby. "I'm always pursuing those joyful, exuberant, transcendent moments that happen when everything is working. That's why I called this album Levitate, because that's what those moments feel like."
By any standard, Bruce Hornsby has built one of the most diverse and adventurous careers in contemporary music. Drawing from a vast wellspring of American musical traditions, the singer/pianist/composer/bandleader has created a large and remarkably accomplished body of work that's employed a vast array of stylistic approaches, while maintaining the integrity, virtuosity and artistic curiosity that have been hallmarks of his work from the start.
The 13-time Grammy nominee's multifarious talents and far-ranging musical interests are prominent on Levitate, which marks the artist's Verve debut. The album's 13 songs span an expansive sonic and emotional palette, encompassing heartfelt insights and absurdist humor, while incorporating a broad assortment of influences within compact song structures.
The material ranges from the expansive, expressive songcraft of "Prairie Dog Town" and "In the Low Country" to the gently reflective introspection of "Invisible" and "Here We Are Again," with the album-opening "The Black Rats of London" offering a swaggering treatise on the influence of the rodents, insects and microbes upon key historical events. Such colorful moments help make Levitate a consistently compelling evocation of Hornsby's established abilities, as well as a substantial creative departure.
"It's also my first record with no piano solos," he adds. "I tend to write long, lyric-intensive songs, and I also like to blow. But this time I thought, I've done that, and I really want to make this record more about the writing."
Beyond its distinctive musical approach, Levitate features the vibrant balance of sincerity and silliness that's long been a hallmark of Hornsby's songwriting. "As I get older, I tend to gravitate in my writing more and more toward the humorous," he says. "For years, I was sort of well known for writing love songs, but I stopped doing that a long time ago, because it's just not what I'm interested in now. But for Levitate, I actually wrote a love song, 'Here We Are Again'—although it's a time-travel fantasy love song using the language of physics, it resonated for me as an interesting angle lyrically."
Levitate also demonstrates Hornsby's knack for provocative songwriting collaborations. For instance, "Cyclone" features resonant wordplay courtesy of legendary Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The album's title track, meanwhile, finds Hornsby writing a haunting lyric around a theme originally written by soundtrack composer Thomas Newman for The Shawshank Redemption. And "Paperboy" and "Michael Raphael," both co-written by Hornsby and lifelong friend Chip deMatteo, draw upon Hornsby's longstanding fascination with the language of modern classical music.
The album is the first Hornsby release co-credited to his longstanding touring band the Noisemakers, an appropriately eclectic outfit that includes bassist J.V. Collier, guitarist Doug Derryberry, drummer Sonny Emory, reeds player Bobby Read and keyboardist John "J.T." Thomas.
Levitate (which Hornsby co-produced with studio vet Tony Berg) also features guest appearances by Eric Clapton on "Space Is the Place" and fiddler Andy Leftwitch, a longtime mainstay of Ricky Skaggs' band, on "The Black Rats of London."
The album is dedicated to the memory of Hornsby's talented nephew R.S. Hornsby, who frequently performed with Bruce as guest guitarist, and who was killed in a car accident six days after recording a memorable solo on "Continents Drift."
Although Levitate marks a departure for Hornsby in many respects, it displays the same creative iconoclasm that's been a constant in the artist's two-and-a-half decade recording career. His commercial stock soared early on, when "The Way It Is"—the title track of Bruce Hornsby and the Range's 1986 debut album—became the most-played song on American radio in 1987, winning ASCAP's Song of the Year award. "The Way It Is" and such subsequent hits as "Mandolin Rain" and "Every Little Kiss," established Hornsby as popular pop act, while high-profile work with the likes of Don Henley,
and Huey Lewis made him an in-demand collaborator.
Despite his early successes, Hornsby chose to pursue a more personal, idiosyncratic musical path, focusing on projects that sparked his creative interest and musical progress. That direction was manifested in his lengthy association with the Grateful Dead, with whom he's performed more than 100 concerts as guest keyboardist. His work with the Dead encouraged Hornsby to incorporate his interest in musical improvisation into his own performances, while his eclectic musical interests have been reflected in a wide array of recording projects.
Over the years, Hornsby has successfully ventured into jazz, classical, bluegrass and even electronica, as reflected by such acclaimed recent releases as the bluegrass project Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby and the jazz trio album Camp Meeting, with Jack deJohnette and Christian McBride. The prestigious list of Hornsby collaborators now includes such diverse figures as Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Charlie Haden, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny, Robbie Robertson, Leon Russell, Chaka Khan, Wayne Shorter, Squeeze, Tupac Shakur and Sting.
Indeed, Bruce Hornsby's restless musical spirit continues to spontaneously push him forward into exciting new musical pursuits. He's currently working with Chicago director Kathleen Marshall on a prospective Broadway musical titled SCKBSTD (many of the new lp’s songs are from this project). He's composed and recorded several soundtrack projects for filmmaker Spike Lee, most recently writing and recording the score for Kobe Doin' Work, Lee's ESPN documentary on Kobe Bryant. Hornsby is also featured onscreen in the new Robin Williams/Bobcat Goldthwait film World's Greatest Dad. That film features lots of Hornsby music, including the Levitate track "Invisible."
Such projects are consistent with the same lifelong pursuit of musical transcendence that helps to animate Levitate. "To me," says Hornsby, "it's always just been about broadening my reach and moving into new areas. So it's a fantastic situation to be able to do that, and to continue to pursue a wide-ranging musical life."