Ronald Bruner Jr. had been playing drums professionally for decades before releasing his debut album, Triumph, on World Galaxy Records March 3. A childhood friend of Kamasi Washington, he appeared on the saxophonist’s breakout album The Epic, and was a member of Washington’s touring band as well. We caught up with Bruner in New York as he was gearing up to support the album with live shows around the world. The following are excerpts from the conversation.
So you’re visiting from L.A. How do you like hanging in New York City?
I enjoy this place but I enjoy leaving it more.
When I come to New York, I’m consistently moving, and I think that’s I beautiful thing. I think that’s what makes this city so cool. You make it here you can make it anywhere. There’s always something to do, always something to dive into. For me, being an L.A. boy, I like those moments when I can sit down and chill for a minute and not go to the most happening jam session in the world. I can watch a re-run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air every now again.
And Martin …
And Martin, yeah!
It seems like in L.A., with the quickly growing jazz scene, you can’t really chill too much, either. There’s a lot happening over there.
It’s definitely picking up, but first of all, L.A. stuff ends around 1:30 [a.m.], so you can’t get up and go out the house at midnight and expect to have an amazing night. More than likely we all leave the house around 10 to get to wherever we’re going, so there’s a cut-off point. There’s a lot going on in L.A. but that cut-off point makes it easier for you to go back to reality for eight hours. You need a break. I was up last night and went to five jam sessions. I slept at my friend’s house on the floor. You’re just hangin’.
In New York, it really just never ends. A place like Smalls does a 1:30 a.m. jam session almost every night.
We were at Fat Cats [in Greenwich Village] til 5 in the morning. They were up there swingin’. Man, ya’ll need to go your asses to sleep! (laughs)
One thing that I loved about watching the West Coast explosion over the last few years was the camaraderie. You guys worked like a team to put each other on, starting with The Epic and To Pimp A Butterfly, and from there it’s had an exponential effect.
With the exception of maybe one or two of us, we all grew up together; we’re all best friends since childhood. Me and Kamasi have been best friends since birth. My brother Stephen [aka Thundercat] is in it, obviously. It actually started with this jazz group called the Young Jazz Giants. It was a great springboard, a great opportunity that Kamasi presented to us as a group like, “Hey, man, we’re all in this barrel, but if one crab gets out, I’m pulling you out.” So we all kind of pitched in, came together and did that big record session together, buckled down, and when one got out and extended his arm, we all started getting out of the barrel.
I’ve heard about these sessions. They seemed legendary.
Man, it was Kamasi’s idea. Kamasi’s a very intelligent dude. Ever since we were kids, he was a smart guy … good grades. He was a hood kid that was smart as hell. And he put that idea together because he saw that we all had records that weren’t done. I had been working on my record since 2008, and he was like, “Yo, you need to finish this joint.” It wasn’t even intentional; it was like all the homies just [got] together. Everyone’s home for the holidays, like the whole month of December. We all came at it together and it was just great how the clock worked. I’m a night owl so I got all the night hours. It was really fuckin’ cool, a beautiful moment.
What was it like to grow up surrounded by so many talented musicians?
Because of how we grew up, I don’t even see it as being crazy. It’s just the norm for me. With my brother and Kamasi and Cameron [Graves] and Ryan [Porter] and Brandon Coleman and all those guys—we were always chasing some upper-level shit, so it became normal. Me and Kamasi, when we were kids, used to go into practice rooms in high school, and on the weekends I’d be at his house and we would play. We were always chasing the energy of progression. Our norm became higher and higher up.
Growing up, I was very fortunate. My parents play, so there was always music crackin’ in the house. My dad was playing everything from Led Zeppelin to Bobby Brown, you know? That’s the reason we had such a vast vocabulary. My father would play all these crazy records. Every week he’d buy a new record and play it for us every day in the car and leave it at home to go do something, and we’d go grab the record and practice to it. So many different colors. I was very fortunate, man.
We’ve seen a handful of albums from that session come out—Kamasi’s, Miles’, Cameron’s, yours—are there any albums coming up out of the West Coast that you’re excited for the world to hear?
Yeah, Brandon Coleman, Professor Boogie, his record’s coming out. Ryan Porter’s record is coming out, I think, in September. Those two records, I’m really looking forward to those. We’re all still working on our new records. I’m 15 songs into my new record, so I’m really excited to get that out early next year.
I’m excited to see what you guys can do now that it seems like …
I’m gonna make you dance. That’s what I’m gonna do. That’s the direction I’m going!
You know, I go to a lot of these jazz shows and they’re begging people to dance. They’ll literally ask people to get up out of their chairs and dance, and it never happens. Seems like jazz in 2017 could stand to use more fun.
Yeah, man, the stuff we do now—it’s like that. We do Red Rocks [Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado] and people are boogying the entire time we play.
Kamasi’s band now is quite a bit different from what it was when you all first started touring with The Epic.
What’s happening now is everyone is starting to expand out, so it’s kind of like we get together to do Kamasi’s big shows. But we’re working on Kamasi’s new record now. It’s crazy. Absolute bananas.
Now that everyone has put out the initial albums and is focusing on what’s current, I’m thinking there’s potential for a lot of really cool music.
For me, I got the more hybrid record out of the group, because of my musical experiences in the past. I kind of hodgepodged it together. It’s the direction I’m going. I enjoy making people dance, you know? Good vibes. I got some cool collabs on there: I got Anderson .Paak, Chaka Khan, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Kamasi. I want to turn it into making people boogie. I don’t stay on the drums at my shows, I get out there and sing. DB