Review: Thundercat at Larimer, 11/19/13
Standing in the middle of a pulsating crowd of people dancing their asses off last night at the Larimer Lounge, I noticed the scene was tastefully decorated with diverse pockets of older gentlemen, hippie chicks, approachable beardos and cool guys. Somehow, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and his band have managed to conquer the hearts and minds of hipsters as well as the jazz cognoscenti. How? Well, they started by conquering their feet.
Countless reviewers have gone on and on about the virtuosic skills of this six string bass player and for good reason. What was most notable last night at the Larimer was the sweaty, obedient throng of party people bouncing and bobbing to the band's every beat.
Since his highly acclaimed 2011 debut, Thundercat has been an odd wunderkind. A seriously popular jazz musician who's largest successes have been found outside of jazz. Most know the name Thundercat from his incredible contributions to Flying Lotus's last two albums. Conventional wisdom doesn't favor a '70s-era light jazz, fusion-inspired instrumentalist best known for guest turns on another largely unknown instrumentalists albums.
Just the same, Thundercat has simultaneous become an indie darling and jazz scene champion by doing a style jazz purists used to hate: fusion. This tactic has become the new blueprint for success in the jazz arena utilized by other successful acts like Robert Glasper and Gregory Porter. The lesson here is don't front on that fusion, and please don't spare the pop!
All the songs Thundercat and his bandmates (including his brother/Suicidal Tendencies bandmate Ronald Jr. or drums) chose to perform last night were all the sparkling pop turns from his two albums, shimmering nuggets of accessibility like "Daylight" and "Walkin'". It was like Stanley Clarke with the benefit of Kenny Loggins's hooks, or the Mahavishnu Orchestra with arrangements by Brubeck.
This after all was the promise that fusion jazz never really fulfilled in the '70s and '80s: To push jazz to new limits without leaving people behind. There's no way you're going to lose your audience if they are literally dancing to your beat. Back in the day, hardliners mistook the R&B and pop fusion vibes of George Duke and the like for blasphemy.
Then the widening rift between "real jazz" and "fusion" eventually sank into the gulf that is "smooth jazz." George Duke, who passed away earlier this year is largely known for his lesser, lighter fare of the last twenty years, rather than the complex and dense fusion jazz of his early years.
Last night at the Larimer, Bruner and company stepped up and reclaimed the glory of fusion for the future of jazz. That future includes every imaginable walk and shape matching dancefloor energy to musician sweat equity. Given the hours he must put in mastering his instrument, it's amazing that Bruner knows how to entertain more than himself with solos.
In his hands, a self indulgent solo feels like a gift to the crowd. A little something else to dance to. Everything works in service of the groove and mood, not the ego. That's something that jazz forgot a long time ago, celebrating egocentric blowhards like Wynton Marsalis. Thundercat has managed to revere a bygone era in jazz akin to Marsalis, while also staying subjective enough to keep what works for today. The result is a hypnotizing sound that felt all too brief when the house lights came up after an hour.
Earlier in the evening, Thundercat was supported by two local acts. Rumtum the second act of the night is a multi-instrumentalist working between beat machines, sequencers and a guitar. His sound was atmospheric yet dancefloor worthy. He was definitely ready for prime time and kept heads bobbing until the main event.
The unsung hero of the night was the opening act Garrett Sayers Trio, (bass, keys and drums), a perfect sonic bookend to the fusion sound of Thundercat. To that end, GS3 chose to cover some notable fusion era classics like "Westchester Lady" by Bob James. The whole set felt very Dilla-esque. Especially the final track of their set, a Dilla-fied version of Giorgio Moroder's "E=MC2." Bandleader Garrett Sayers thanked the crowd for "showing up early," and by the sound of the applause at the close of the set, the pleasure was all ours.
Personal Bias: There should be a Venn Diagram illustrating just how much crossover there is between acts like Thundercat, Phish and Widespread Panic. I'm not calling Thundercat a jam band -- okay, maybe I'm calling Thundercat a jam band.
Random Detail: The ugly lights came on early curtailing a planned encore. The band had purportedly planned an encore performance of "Lotus and the Jondy" but the house lights came on before the band could get back to the stage for an encore. Wamp-wamp-waaa.
By the Way: This is the second really great show at Larimer Lounge in less than a week. (See: Jessie Ware). It's also another show with great music between acts.
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