Contrary to the lamentations of Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian in La La Land, jazz is enjoying a surprising moment in the sun. Few would have predicted that the most acclaimed albums of the past two years would be partnerships with forward-thinking jazz musicians. On last year’s Blackstar, the versatility and dynamism of Donny McCaslin’s band enabled David Bowie to make one last leap into the unknown. On Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly before that, jazz was a means of connecting hip-hop to the ferment of the 1970s. Lamar’s chief lieutenant was Stephen Bruner, the Los Angeles bass player who calls himself Thundercat.
Bruner is the son of Motown session drummer Ronald Bruner Sr and the brother of Ronald Bruner Jr, who has played drums for Prince and Stevie Wonder. He joined the veteran thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies as a teenager, moving on to session work for the likes of Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus. His undulating solo albums blend jazz fusion, soul, hip-hop and yacht-rock with an eccentric sense of humour and a hazy sense of loss. Drunk, his latest, features Lamar and Wiz Khalifa as well as Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins: an index of both his breadth and his clout. The album pushes his melancholy falsetto to the fore while his bass functions as the bubbling river that carries the songs along. His live shows are something else entirely. The river bursts its banks and runs wild.
When Bruner was playing in Snoop Dogg’s backing band, his fellow musicians would scold him: “Can you make your bass sound like more of a bass?” He can play a straight bassline in the same way that El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià could make you a sandwich: it would be exceptional, but it wouldn’t be the best use of his talents. Bruner, a jovial, thickset 32-year-old with a nose ring and a bouquet of short dreadlocks, would rather make his six-string bass do the work of a lead guitar or synthesiser, sprinting up and down the fretboard until it speaks in tongues. He’s so preternaturally gifted that he can do this with his eyes closed, and indeed he does. Playing on this level has a similar effect to a magic trick or a gravity-taunting gymnastics routine – it scarcely seems possible. His bandmates are no slouches either. Keyboardist Dennis Hamm alternates between synthesiser and Fender Rhodes with quicksilver grace while drummer Justin Brown frequently attains the manic velocity of drum’n’bass. Communicating with nods and grins, they never play the same setlist twice.
It goes without saying that jazz fusion’s musical pyrotechnics are an acquired taste. Looking around the small, packed venue you can see both the passionate head-nodding of aficionados and the antsiness of those who are rather keen for Bruner to return to the stoned groove of the album. The contrast’s the thing. The trio regularly send a song spiralling frantically into the cosmos before landing safely at a leisurely hip-hop tempo. Crowd members clap and cheer like passengers applauding the pilot after a plane has touched down.
Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer
It works because Bruner’s songwriting is warm and relatable. Many of his songs allude to closing your eyes, turning off and letting go but these states often hint darkly at oblivion, in the form of alcoholism or death. 3AM is a yacht-rocking description of insomnia; DUI a plaintive evocation of the weariness of heavy drinking. Even Oh Sheit, It’s X, a disco jam that sets Gorilla’s twin glitterballs spinning, tackles the messy side of hedonism, recounting a New Year’s Eve party spun out of control by too much ecstasy. Them Changes, Bruner’s most infectious song, opens with the striking instruction: “Nobody move, there’s blood on the floor/ And I can’t find my heart”, but his voice makes even the most profound sadness sweet.
Unlike those virtuosos who emphasise technique rather than effect and advertise their intensity with a great deal of earnest face-scrunching, Bruner is a charmingly amiable presence, so delighted by playing that he frequently bursts out laughing. There’s a lovely moment during Lone Wolf and Cub when someone in the front row shouts out something that amuses him and he giggles and waves at her without breaking stride. Then he’s off again, rocking back and forth, shutting his eyes and beaming serenely as he makes his instrument perform yet another miracle.