Thundercat, or Stephen Bruner, is an unusual musician. An overwhelming bassist, he plays a massive six-string electric bass like a lead guitar. At the same time, he has a disarmingly smooth falsetto, simultaneously pure and playful. Either of those instruments would be more than enough to carry a band, and he is somehow a master of both. He’s best known for holding down the bottom end on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, and everything Kamasi Washington has ever recorded.
Despite his massive musical talent, his solo playing seems to be about everything but virtuosity. Yes, Bruner can throw off a devastating bassline or effortless solo, and his knowledge of jazz, fusion, funk, soul, yacht-rock, and punk is encyclopedic. But he channels all that into something more reflective, introverted, and human. About his 2013 album, Apocalypse, Pitchfork noted, “He doesn’t put up some kind of esoteric barrier between the vision of a serious artiste and an unwitting audience that supposedly needs to be schooled on what true musicianship is. He’s more dealing with a simple set of ideas, emotions, sentiments, and experiences, elaborated upon in a surprising way.”
His 2017 record, Drunk, keeps that sense of performative reserve while seriously upping the emotional complexity. Over the course of nearly two dozen short songs, Bruner finds surprising depth in the mundanities of everyday life. “Captain Stupido” feels like the goofy side of Frank Zappa, albeit filtered through soul fusion. On “Them Changes,” he contemplates lost love over a thumping Bootsy Collins groove, shot through with the best parts of ’80s soft rock. Mortality always looms from even the most hedonistic moments of the album, giving everything a bittersweet essence.
In concert, Bruner somehow manages to push all the extremes of emotion and virtuosity even more. His preferred setting is a power trio with drummer Justin Brown and keyboardist Dennis Hamm, accentuating the emotional and musical spaces within his music. But behind that laid-back feel is some of the most stunning technique in jazz, soul, or rock. Its deceptive smoothness will overwhelm you. “Playing on this level has a similar effect to a magic trick or a gravity-taunting gymnastics routine,” the Guardian raved. “It scarcely seems possible.”