HEAVEN, LONDON | MARCH 28, 2017
Before punk came along and pulled the pickle out of Britain’s mottled backside, old Britannia was really struggling for new ideas. Angel-faced choristers, sick of pulling the pud to Elgar’s refined pomp, had successfully swapped motion for motion, with bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes knocking out intense, studied compositions to bedazzle their audiences into believing cosmic progress really could come in capes.
While Britain’s choirboys were raging firmly within the machine, things were looking a hell of a lot tastier Stateside. Born of the blues, musicians like Mingus, Monk, Miles, the Coltranes and Nina Simone were breaking through the stratospheres of spontaneous musical interaction, and using their voices to promote new ideologies, and greater civil liberties for black and female Americans.
With jazz choosing the right moment over the right notes, punk had to go one step further. Bin your scales; fuck it, bin your instruments, if it helps you get your kicks. Opening the door for the industrial, noise and no-wave movements that followed, punk ditched the choral tradition for whatever felt right, calling popular music’s basic architecture into question through feckless experimentation and wilful ineptitude. You gotta transgress to transgress, man.
In the middle of all this heat lies Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA bassist who at 32 has already collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, not to mention a nine-year stint in legendary LA thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner’s latest offering, Drunk – released February 24th on Brainfeeder – is a perfect combination of all of these influences, and his dizzying flurries of amphetamine-riddled smooth jazz have drawn all sorts to Heaven’s packed arches tonight.
On stage, Thundercat’s studio recordings are enhanced with a series of madcap geometric fills, which are miraculously kept in check by his calm-set falsetto. He’s joined on stage by keyboardist Dennis Hamm, and drummer Justin Brown, whose left hand snare – some two inches deeper than that to his right – adds a gutsy acoustic weight that sits perfectly with Bruner’s six-string hollow body bass. On ‘A Fan’s Mail’, Brown’s drums could easily pass for a slap bass, whilst Hamm’s underlying synth rumble opens up the floor for Bruner’s bass to elicit a sequence of slick oily wahs. Maybe it’s just the sound of bottles popping in the mixing desk, but it all sounds way punchier than Drunk lets on.
The extended space between songs is where the band’s telepathic interplay really steals the show. With cerebral harmonics sparking from six flurried hands, the instruments’ own identities blur and interchange, and you’re forced to question whether you really are witnessing just three musicians on stage. Conservative and clunky in comparison, the studied unison of bands like Yes and Jethro Tull restricted them from ever cutting this loose.
With brain-melting riffs noodling out at a dizzying rate, many of the audience watch on in bemused astonishment. Others adopt the kind of hypnotized sway you’d expect Aphex Twin to summon. Unsure of what to hang shapes on, the audience just finds new ways to get down. Still, there’s plenty here for everyone. Thundercat’s set finishes on the more radio-friendly trio of ‘Oh Sheit it’s X’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘The Turn Down,’ whose obsidian R&B whirlpool is the perfect antidote to two hours of intergalactic trans-instrumental deviation.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – whose slick production bagged Bruner a Grammy – knocked rock and roll off its dusty perch, crowning hip-hop as popular music’s sharpest political tool. Now once again, Thundercat has flipped the script, using his genre-hopping explorations to screw with the basic physics of instrumentation. Yes, there are points where Hamm’s marauding synth sax lines lack a little on the high end, in a way that a live saxophone wouldn’t. But even the JBs would struggle to knock out two hours at this intensity. It’s a small price to pay to see a band dextrously take jazz beyond the capacities of embouchure. Transgression, man.