Stephen Bruner has had a love for the bass for as long as he can remember. He says that he always gravitated towards stringed instruments as a kid, and has countless family photos of himself as a young boy holding a bass to prove it.
Bruner—who's now 31 years old and better known as Thundercat—hasn't abandoned that childhood infatuation. He's a prolific bassist who sings in soft falsetto and is known to perform wearing what appears to be a taxidermied wolf head as a hat. He's a man who laughs through conversations about his craft, but dives deep into heavy subjects like heartbreak and mortality in his lyrics. And he's hitting the Jazz Fest main stage this Saturday, July 17, ready to make you dance to his funk- and jazz-inspired soul music.
In conversation, Bruner comes off as confident yet cavalier. He speaks of his bass-playing as a given, his unmistakable command of the instrument an inevitability. But make no mistake: What Bruner does with the bass is inventive and skillful, pushing the instrument from its traditional place in the rhythm section of a band to the centre of his music's melody and improvisation.
"I've always looked at my instrument as a tool to be able to go somewhere else, not just to sit there and be comfortable," he says. "Like yeah, I can play bass [in a band] behind a bunch of people—that was part of it, at one point that was my life. But my life now is that I tour by myself. I'm coming to realize that that in itself is not an easy thing to do, even to just make a decision to doing the other side of it, doing something different."
Bruner says that his progressive attitude stems from his work with other musicians. When he's not working his solo music, he's a session musician, playing bass for and working alongside musicians such as the experimental electronic music producer Flying Lotus and up-and-coming jazz hero Kamasi Washington.
Perhaps Bruner's best-known collaborator is also one of his closest: He worked intimately with acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar on Lamar's Grammy Award-winning 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, an experience that left Bruner with a Grammy of his own (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for the song "These Walls") and an even greater desire to push his own creative limits.
"What you see is exactly what you get with Kendrick," he says. "That's hard for a lot of people...but Kendrick has a really good grasp on the idea of himself and who he is. Getting a chance to be around someone who would rather spend that time in that creative space fluidly, it definitely changed the way I write and my perspective on what I do. It sparked a fire under what I do. I felt incredibly inspired."
Live, Bruner is joined by Justin Brown on drums and Dennis Hamm on keyboards. The trio builds upon Thundercat's recorded music with improvisation, and sometimes incorporates covers of songs by collaborators like Lamar and Flying Lotus into its set.
"Sometimes I do it, sometimes I don't," he says about his choice to cover other artists' songs at his shows. "There's different people in the audience every time. There's people that don't know who you are, there's people that know everything about you, there's people that are looking for that one song that you might play. But I can't let that freak me out. I just try to find a flow to the set personally that I feel comfortable with, and sometimes that includes my friends' music too.
"It's all music," he says with a lighthearted lift in his voice. "As much as people try to act like they have a hold of what it is, it can always surprise you, change your mind, freak you out, make things worse or better for you. That's the ocean of music."
Thundercat w/River Tiber
Saturday, July 16, Main Stage, 8:30pm, $25