Thundercat on the living spirit of improvisation

Psychedelic bassist pushes Atlanta Jazz Festival forward

When Thundercat takes the stage May 22 in Piedmont Park, headlining the first night of this year's Atlanta Jazz Festival, the psychedelic bass player extraordinaire will stand as living proof of the genre's breadth. Born Stephen Bruner, the first songs he ever learned to play on his four-string Harmony bass were from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze soundtrack. As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, Bruner often played alongside his older brother, drummer Robert Bruner Jr., in hardcore punk band Suicidal Tendencies. Later, he backed Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg in the studio and on stage. Like his Brainfeeder label boss and frequent collaborator Flying Lotus' Steven Ellison, Thundercat sees jazz not as a dying art form, but a launching pad for endless possibilities. His latest album, 2013's Apocalypse, soared from old-school boogie funk to electro folk-soul and beyond, as he mourned the loss of a good friend and sang a heartfelt ode to his cat. In March, he appeared on rapper Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, an awe-inspiring album indebted to recent discoveries such as Miles Davis and Mary Lou Williams — artists that Thundercat introduced to Lamar in the studio. In the midst of playing Street Fighter, Thundercat took a few minutes to talk about his recent collaborations, the nature of improvisations, and the future of jazz.

How did you meet Flying Lotus?

I met him at SXSW almost a decade ago, in the middle of the street. It was one of those things where we were like, "I heard about you." "Same here." We were tongue in cheek: "We gotta hang out sometime." But sure enough, we became partners in crime like Batman and Robin. I'll give you a better example. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is more like us.

Who has surprised you most in the studio?

Kendrick. That's not just because he was recent or is a bigger artist. The title "producer" ... People in the studio fight for it all the time. "I produced it." "No, I produced it!" The guy literally has the ability to see through things, and it translates into his writing. He wears insecurity like a badge, letting everybody know where his mind is at, and it's a beautiful thing to bear witness to. I've had different experiences with people creating in the studio; insecurity can cause them to overcompensate because they don't know how to deal with it. Out of everyone I've hung around with, I felt the most comfortable in my skin with Kendrick.

You introduced Kendrick to a few jazz artists. How did you decide which records to play for him?

Well, he was already open to stuff. I just messed around to see what caught his attention; then I saw what he would be paying attention to in the music. When we were playing Joe Henderson in the studio, he was like, "What was that?" I was like, "Aha! Only the greatest saxophone player ever." I think that's the fun part of music: trying to understand each other. It's difficult, but the more languages you speak, the easier it becomes. The things that he was listening for in what I did, I felt like I could show him where I came from. It was along the lines of ... Sorry, I lost it. I was thinking of Street Fighter again.

I was gonna ask if you've played the reboot, but I realized I was thinking of Mortal Kombat X.

Have you played it?

No. Have you?

What kind of question is that? laughs

Kamasi Washington recently said to LA Weekly, "Records from Kendrick and Flying Lotus and Thundercat and hopefully mine can open doors for jazz again."

Every once in a while, somebody will call me an elitist. People think there's a standard to which jazz is held. What they don't realize is that it's a lot of improvisation. You can't put a cap on improvisation. Jazz has become a weird thing for younger people, but I think that the door is always open and there are new windows to jump through. I do think the minute you put a title to something, you're opening the door only for it to be squashed, but I'm still open to where everything is going. Time isn't going to turn back to the 1940s, but jazz is supposed be part of your makeup. So if we are the guys who are reintroducing that concept, then sure. laughs I look at it like it never left. There are just different forms.

Isn't that ironic, how people think there are rules to a genre rooted in improvisation?

They think you have to learn to improvise. Do you? What happens to the guy who didn't go to school, or the child who is exactly who you've worked to become your whole life? Do you commit suicide, or do you try to help him? Look, you gotta keep your mind open. Try not to get too attached to things, as you try to be the best musician you can be.

You're working on a new album with Flying Lotus. How is that shaping up?

It's shaping up to a big lumpy ball of randomness. We're the same. We're both in our element. I'm still working with Mono/Poly and other producers, and I'm working on an EP right now. I'm taking one step at a time.

Is your EP inspired by anything in particular?

Mortal Kombat. laughs I would hope that all music is inspired by something and not just coming out of my ass. Ba dum dum, chhh. But yeah, I'm inspired by life experiences and what I go through. The quandaries and wonders of planet Earth. How much I get freaked out by the moon getting closer to Earth. laughs Are we gonna die?

Sounds like an "X Files" episode.

Exactly. I'm actually scared. Nah, it's all fun, you know?

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