A string of high profile collaborations, including a heavy involvement on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest two releases “To Pimp A Butterfly” and “Untitled Unmastered”, has seen Thundercat, real name Stephen Bruner, become one of the world’s most sought after bassists. Performing additional bass live on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ iHeartRadio album release party demonstrates his newfound crossover appeal, but more significantly it evidences his ability and style. Not content with playing standard basslines, Bruner’s playing takes on a life of its own, twisting through jazz-funk melodies more commonly produced by a lead guitar.
It’s even more impressive when witnessed live. Bruner’s playing adds a fresh lick of paint to his records, as his six string bass creates distinctly un-bass-like tones. You quickly begin to realise that many sections of songs believed to be played by other instruments are actually produced by him. This versatility gives keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Justin Brown the freedom to improvise freely, confident that Bruner can provide steady bassline rhythms when necessary, before taking the spotlight by twisting his steady grooves into an enthralling lead.
Songs are regularly remoulded from the velvet funk of latest album “Drunk “into wild jazz hybrids. Extended instrumentals go on for minutes, firing off into complex spaces before suddenly being dragged back to the smooth rhythm of the records, an effect that is met with rapturous mid-song applause. While this is very much Thundercat’s show, his fellow musicians keep pace, communicating through subtle nods and glances. The live amalgam of jazz with Bruner’s usual funk-pop vibes understandably may not be to the entire venue’s taste, the talent on stage is undeniable. When Bruner eventually takes a moment to introduce his bandmates to the crowd, it’s met with fervent appreciation.
Contrary to the commonly held belief that jazz is a genre that takes itself seriously, Bruner’s amiable presence creates a lighthearted performance. ‘I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway’ sing the audience during single ‘Friend Zone’, the tongue-in-cheek silliness of the lyric producing an endearing grin from Bruner. That grin is a common feature of the show as, deep in an improvised groove, he regularly casts his head back and smiles, shutting his eyes as his hand glides up and down the neck of his guitar, perfectly controlling his rich melodies.
Providing an important self-awareness, the humorous and ebullient feel to the show prevents the set from feeling bloated and self-indulgent as it clocks in at just under two hours. The span of genres, from the pop of ‘Heartbreaks + Setbacks’, the funk of ‘Show You the Way’ and the disco of ‘Oh Sheit It’s X’, keeps things fresh, and sprinklings of Bruner’s collaborations with Kendrick Lamar through performances of ‘These Walls’ and ‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’ are lapped up by the audience. As the show comes to a close with latest single ‘Walk on By’ and the crowd files out of the venue, there’s the feeling that Thundercat has hit the sweet spot: satisfied the fans while leaving them eager for more. Thankfully for them, Bruner’s tireless nature means it more than likely won’t be long until his next collaborative release.