New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Thundercat Dazzles Historic Blue Note

Bassist Thundercat just wrapped up his residency at the Blue Note on Third Street, a historic venue where jazz legends such as Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Stanley Clarke have also performed.
Thundercat with his fire guitar. (via Facebook)

Thundercat, whose real name is Stephen Bruner, has released a number of projects over the past decade, including his most recent records, 2017’s “Drunk” and 2018’s “Drank.” In addition to his close associations with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Kali Uchis, Kamasi Washington, Travis Scott and Mac Miller, he also just recently helped score an episode of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” alongside Flying Lotus.

His Blue Note residency featured a weeklong schedule of performances two or three times a night from Feb. 11 to 17 — all of which sold out. One of his sets this past Saturday was an incredible jazz fusion extravaganza, where the level of musicianship and attention to detail were so great that it was often hard to distinguish whether or not Bruner & Co. were playing unreleased material, more complex compositions of songs from “Drunk” or original work composed specifically for the event.

Though Thundercat was backed by the same musicians who gave us the laid-back Rhythm and Blues-oriented NPR Tiny Desk performance — Justin Brown on drums and Dennis Hamm on keys — the Blue Note performance was noticeably faster-paced, complex and unrelenting, with the three master musicians completely letting loose for an hour.

The night began with a short stand-up routine by comedian Quinta Brunson, a former Buzzfeed star and Internet personality, who entertained audiences with jokes about calling her white boyfriend the n-word — Brunson is African-American — and being confused about her sexuality. Because of the sheer amount of shows Thundercat performed, and the amount of celebrities likely in New York City, Thundercat was liable to have a different guest open the show every night. At a show earlier that week, Don Cheadle and Dave Chappelle made guest appearances, while Zach Fox opened with stand-up.

After Brunson warmed up the audience, Thundercat, Hamm and Brown finally took the stage for the main event. The set opened with an explosive jazz-fusion rendition of “Captain Stupido” from “Drunk,” setting the foundation for the style and pacing of the next few songs. With Justin Brown’s intricate yet aggressive and commanding presence on drums as the foundation, the trio transitioned into “Uh Uh,” a high-speed jazz-funk jam and subsequent track on “Drunk.”

From the first notes, the chemistry the three musicians shared was undeniable, each artist bringing a level of expertise and mastery one rarely experiences at a pop artist’s performance — even if that artist is prolific jazz-bassist Thundercat. Part of the beauty of seeing Thundercat live is that since a lot of his music incorporates eccentric and offbeat electronic funk instrumentals to complement his intricate bass playing, these songs can be re-imagined in a live jazz context that allows them to reach an even greater musical potential.

Such was the case with the next song in the set. The Flying Lotus-produced “Tron Song,” from 2013’s “Apocalypse.” Originally a mostly electronic composition courtesy of Flying Lotus, the live version was intensified to a level far beyond the original’s, taking on a much more dramatic tone alongside Brown’s fiery fusion drumming and Hamm’s space-jazz keyboard tones. Thundercat kept the “Apocalypse” love going with a performance of “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” one of the few songs throughout the set that wasn’t too far removed from its original sound.

Following his odes to “Apocalypse,” Thundercat dove deeper into his discography with a rendition of “Descent into Madness” from Flying Lotus’ 2014 release “You’re Dead!,” originally a one minute and one-minute 27-second song written by Bruner that was fleshed out into a multi-act jazz-fusion saga. Continuing his slew of non-“Drunk” tracks, Thundercat segued into “Where the Giants Roam / Field of the Nephilim” from his 2015 EP “The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam,” which saw the trio taking a more restrained approach to the Dennis Hamm and Thundercat-produced electronic-soul slow jam.

Thundercat kept the R&B vibes coming with an extended version of “Drunk”’s 30-second track “I Am Crazy,” followed by a seamless transition into “3AM” — also the next song on “Drunk.” The opportunity for slower songs allowed the trio to move into more traditional jazz territory, as “3AM” transitioned into Thundercat soloing over a laid-back jazz foundation courtesy of Brown and Hamm. Next up from the last act of “Drunk” was the title track “Drunk,” probably one of the most intimate, soulful and beautiful songs of the night — the performance being noticeably restrained in comparison to the sounds audiences were greeted with an hour earlier.

As Thundercat prepared for the last leg of the performance, he took time to shout out the video game fans in the audience, specifically those fans of Mortal Kombat — a subtle hint to the next song “Friend Zone,” where Bruner sings the line “Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway.”

Another faithful jazz interpretation of “Drunk’s” electronic jazz-funk cadence, where Hamm’s rich and shimmering synth playing created the feeling of being inside a video game menu screen.

Next was “Apocalypse’s” “Lotus and the Jondy,” which was essentially a multiple-minute long drum solo where Brown delivered a mind-bending showcase of drumming wizardry.

For the last song of the concert, Thundercat & Co. performed fan favorite “Them Changes,” which featured the trio locking into an extremely funky groove perfect for easing the audience into the evening’s conclusion. With Bruner hot off a weeklong slew of live jazz renditions of popular songs across his discography, it’ll be difficult to keep fans from begging for a straight-up jazz album in the future — at least those lucky enough to have seen him make history at the Blue Note.

Email Kamau Littletree-Holston at [email protected].

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