LIVE: Thundercat – Gorilla, Manchester 23.03.17

Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) is three albums into a spellbindingly creative solo career. He arrived in Manchester riding high on the goodwill that has met his new album, Drunk; a 23 track collage that melts jazz integrity into a fast-moving, playful, 21st-century-friendly package. A baying Gorilla crowd awaited, anticipating how the album could be translated into a live show.

Thundercat – a sadistically cool presence in person – is adorned with a true monster of a bass guitar, six-stringed and sassy. Only a partner this grand and beautiful could convey the magic that spills out of his mind, only an instrument this confident could keep up with his lightning fingers. To his right is Dennis Hamm, a keyboardist that can transform his parts into any instrument he chooses: saxophone, clarinet, harpsichord, grand piano. To his left is Justin Brown, perhaps the greatest drummer I have ever witnessed live. Together, they are unstoppable.

They open with Drunk’s opener ‘Rabbit Ho’, although it goes by that name in theory only. They use the fragments and ideas that were sketched out on the record, and expand upon them for as long as they deem fit in the moment. Tracks that are 60 or 90 seconds become 6 or 7 minute opuses, with rarely as much as a flash of eye contact between musicians needed for them to agree on which new direction to explore.

They do not avoid the attraction of pop music, with ‘Them Changes’ bouncing with a bulbous bassline that has this Gorilla prowling and shimmying, and ‘Friend Zone’ doesn’t shy from the light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek tone of the album version, giving Hamm his best chance of the night to indulge in futurist sci-fi keyboard journeys. Elsewhere, ‘Bus in These Streets’ plays with the lingering technophobe paranoia in our world, and ‘Show Me the Way’ battles on bravely without its featured vocalists Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins.

The night’s most incendiary segment begins with a re-interpretation of Flying Lotus’ ‘MmmHmm’ from 2010’s Cosmogramma, which Thundercat originally produced. Setting out as a melodic, honest version, it quickly transcends the familiar composition, becoming a full fifteen minute white noise blackout, with all three soloing simultaneously. Thrown in are a few strains of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Complexion’ for good measure (another Thundercat collaboration), just to add to the pan-sensory, too-much-to-take-in frenzy. They eventually return from orbit – landing in perfect choreography – naturally – and resuscitate the original chorus of the song that we are somehow still in the thralls of.

Brown’s powerhouse percussion is something to behold – when was the last time you heard a drummer’s name getting its own spontaneous shoutouts from an audience? He can turn his hand to whatever Bruner and Hamm throw at him – aggressive, rock-fuelled menace or light-wristed, delicate nuance, and everything that lies between. If he was tiring by the end of their second full hour on stage, he certainly concealed it well, and his ovation as they leave the stage one by one may even have eclipsed Thundercat’s. Like Bruner’s brother Ronald, Brown deserves the opportunity to create his own drum-led jazz projects in the future; not many can compare with his talents.

By the end of the night, the audience justifiably feel as exhausted as the band, having been taken on one ambitious and unpredictable experiment after another. Their non-adherence to song-writing structures and conventions have a potent ability to free your mind as a listener, opening unexplored corridors in your mind, gifting you Sherlock-like access to the mind palaces of your imagination. It would not be surprising if a few Mancunians leave tonight inspired to create something of their own.

Max Pilley