Thundercat Looks For Connections During A Bewildering Moment

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Thundercat is a second-generation product of the Los Angeles jazz scene: Drummer Ronald Bruner Sr., his father, gigged with saxophonist Rickey Washington, father of Kamasi Washington.

(Photo: The1point8)

“Reggie Andrews was like my second dad,” he said. “Anybody that got a chance to be his student, he became like a dad. And it wouldn’t be a diss to my father, because my father trusted him like his brother. ... He would push us to be better. And his track record was pretty clear: Patrice Rushen, Gerald Albright, Tyrese Gibson, The Pharcyde. That all came out under Mr. Reggie Andrews’ tutelage. He’s part of L.A.’s real history.”

The bassist also cites Erykah Badu as being “very instrumental in my development as an artist. [She and] Flying Lotus [showed] me the ropes, so to speak, and what it meant to be very much an artist of your own.” Badu selected him to play in her band when Thundercat still was in his teens, and then tapped the young bassist to work on her New Amerykah records. “We’re still the closest of friends,” he added.

It Is What It Is, an album sonically distinct from Thundercat’s work in other ensembles, is an echo-drenched, spacey romp that’s tethered to Earth by both fat synth lines and his own serpentine bass playing. Thematically, the record deals with a whole spectrum of feelings tied to the idea of connection—from hoping to connect with someone new on a cut like “Overseas” to feeling disconnected on “Unrequited Love.” But amid the coronavirus pandemic, the introverted artist is feeling especially disjointed.

“I miss my guys,” he lamented. “I miss being able to play with my friends on stage and grow in front of everybody. It’s a bit emotionally distressing, but it’s all good. I’m feeling like I was kind of prepared for it. I just spent most of the year sitting on the couch, watching cartoons, anyway.”

That love of cartoons is reflected in his stage name, a reference to the 1980s cartoon show ThunderCats. His affection for animation also made its way onto It Is What It Is: The song “Dragonball Durag” is a reference to the classic anime Dragon Ball Z. So, it’s no wonder that at times Thundercat’s music possesses the blippy forward momentum of Japanese cartoons and 8-bit video games.

Though he’s well known for his collaborations with artists outside the jazz world, like his pivotal contributions as a performer and co-producer on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 Grammy award-winning opus To Pimp A Butterfly, Thundercat still leans into his jazz roots.

“Our job is to embrace,” he explained. “You’ve got to know where stuff came from to know where it’s going. And jazz, a lot of the time, can be a scary word. Because it’s held to such a high standard. All these different denotations about it.”

Armed with knowledge of the past, he’s excited about the future: “It’s like Miles [Davis] said, it’s about the notes you don’t play sometimes. It’s like knowing everything and nothing ... [being willing to let the music] lose its shape, to be formed into something else. This is what jazz is; it’s improvisation. But the goal is to push you forward. ... [Hip-hop producer] J Dilla was making the point. He was constantly interjecting it, trying to find the ways that it can shine inside of the simplicity. I’m sure Dilla would have been able to talk to you about all of Charlie Parker’s discography. And he played cello. That’s why guys like Q-Tip loved him.”

An earmark of Thundercat’s sound is his laidback vocals, which more often than not are slathered in reverb—reminiscent of yacht rock icons like Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, who both were featured on the bassist’s 2017 album Drunk.

“The truth is, it’s just good music,” Thundercat said, discussing yacht rock, a subgenre that some critics consider an inferior facsimile of soul music. “Even if it has a twinge of taking from black culture, what doesn’t? We built this country. ... It’s art. It’s meant to be scrutinized, unfortunately.”

With It Is What It Is, Thundercat’s career continues to be premised on collaborating across genres and working to push into fresh, experimental pockets. And in terms of what’s next musically, he remains characteristically open.

“I’m constantly trying to grow. At the same time, it feels like I’m leaving a lot of room for a lot of emotional content right now,” Thundercat said. “[The coronavirus has] changed the landscape. So, part of it is just leaving a wide berth for whatever comes next. ... If some people feel like it’s time to create and make music, it can be that. And if it’s time to just sit and think and breathe, then it’s time to do that.” DB

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