Thundercat & Hiatus Kaiyote at the Forum, Melbourne 7/6/13
Listen to Thundercat‘s brand of future jazz at home and it’s awesome, but bloody hard to figure out. It’s a language, the product of a culture lived daily. Hear it live, it’s exhausting, only so much better. Bassist Stephen Bruner, dressed in a decorative chestplate and super-comfy looking jammy bottoms, gave Melbourne punters an insight into his world at the Forum theatre last Friday. His skills, impressive as they are, weren’t on display to be understood. I rocked up sufficiently limbered to try and dance to the most awkward of time signatures but found no such challenge. Bruner instead took up his bass and invited us all in close, cutting through the complexity just to communicate with us. He and his fellow cats did jazz justice but with a sense of fun you don’t often see around the genre.
So I get in at about quarter to nine, and within fifteen minutes support act Hiatus Kaiyote begin before a congregation keen to receive them. Out walks drummer Perrin Moss and lays down the opener to ‘Rainbow Rhodes’. The arrhythmic break-beat causes shouts of approval. Eccentric frontwoman Nai Palm dons her arch-top and addresses the floor with smiles, shrugging off both wolf-whistles and errant proposals. Bassist and laptop wielder Paul Bender plus Rhodes player Simon Mavin assume their respective positions. Mavin sits down to synths and keys, assembling fluttering gliss lines. Back-up vocalists Alejandro Jay Abapo, Laura Christoforidis, and Jace Excell encourage us to clap as they do. Admittedly, they are difficult to follow but their spirit is infectious. The three voices stage left soon meet with Palm’s. Together, they deliver winding scats precisely. Bender anchors the troupe from centre stage. He nods to Mavin, smiles at Moss. Everything’s going great, he seems to say. Front and centre Palm sings with a sultry Winehouse husk, but is a more adept musician, capable of fingering chords and delivering advanced vocal lines simultaneously. Mavin and Moss prove their indispensability with later tunes ‘The World It Softly Lulls’, ‘Boom Child’, and ‘Nakamarra’.
It’s clear Hiatus Kayote are comfortable with their sound and with each other. They leave their Melbourne home crowd beaming. In about half an hour the stage is almost reset. Techs bring out a solitary bass and a small side table holding a simple effects board. They take Moss’ kit and Mavin’s keys, leaving a collection of boards to the far left and a modest kit to the right.
Thundercat and his two comrades stroll confidently onstage to gracious applause minutes later. Bruner takes his time, equips an enormous bass. His chestplate now seems practical. The six-stringed monolith is the cat’s choice for the duration, which is cool, because there seems to be no reason to change. Thomas Pridgen (himself an acclaimed jazz artist and former member of The Mars Volta) sits down to an oddly small drum set. Keyboardist Dennis Hamm does as well, manning a clavinet and a few Yamaha electric pianos. They embark almost immediately.
It takes a few numbers for the group to reach strength. Initially Bruner’s bass has too much low-end, nullifying speedy grace notes and clever key changes. Hamm’s synths sit on a distinct level above the mix, cutting sharply through a dampened bass. Pridgen does his own thing – sufficiently miked, levelled out – and their two melody lines work around him until things are sorted. Vocals wane until the sound balance is reached, with Bruner looking intermittently off stage.
Throughout the show Bruner is listening to himself; his attention to altering and perfecting his form in real-time is admirable. Opening tracks ‘Boat Cruise’ and ‘Is It Love?’ establish the Thundercat sound. Bruner tints his tone with a warbly chorus effect and auto-wah care of his mysterious side-table processor. Previous sound issues aside, his technique is right on. The man knows the neck of his bass like a virtuoso should, scaling its length and breadth with great confidence. Pridgen and Hamm take leading roles organically throughout each track.
Show high ‘Fleer Ultra’ is a pleasure to experience live. Pridgen takes the lead, motioning to his sound guy for more keys in his fold-back. The sound guy doesn’t hear. ‘More keys,’ Pridgen mouths, gesturing with one hand and ride-twiddling with the other. He hears more of Hamm’s keys, gives an okay. Hamm smiles across the way, they share a laugh, all the while keeping the song idling. Bruner diverts to drums, Pridgen solos with crazed energy. Chunks of stick rocket rafter-ward. Hamm plays the synth head, relaxing percussion. Pridgen keeps the rhythm steady and manages to tune his snare as well. Bruner rumbles along. In true jazz fashion all three work as symbiotes, correcting volume and speed and listening attentively to cues from one another. Slow down here, speed up here. Bit louder, bit quieter. It’s breathtaking when done right, and they do it right.
Following the success of ‘Fleer Ultra’ the trio appear fully at home. Bruner has a chat with his audience. He prefaces the heartfelt ‘Tron Song’ with a shout-out to his pet cat of the same name, professing his love with a laugh. Later he discusses his emotional journey in creating new album Apocalypse before reciting ‘Heartbreaks + Setbacks’ and ‘Oh Sheit, It’s X!’ to close. The tunes are especially poignant having heard Bruner’s personal context.
Bruner takes time to make his art accessible to the jazz uninitiated. That’s his particular gift as a contemporary. There is no sense of elitism or pretentiousness to the guy. Because of this we are more inclined to celebrate his powerful solos and forgive his vocal missteps as they occur. He shares the gig with us, rather than at us. He includes his audience and his band in everything, and the vulnerability is endearing.
Thundercat’s work arranged in a live setting is definitely something else. The major influence of Flying Lotus’ electro-heavy production is left aside in favour of a strictly human approach. Pridgen and Hamm’s playing on the night contrast the digitized sounds on Bruner’s records; we heard The Golden Age of Apocalypse, but a version with new colour and soul. In doing this Bruner faithfully captured the nature of jazz; a transcendent movement that when played with us much heart and enthusiasm attracts people without having to be fully understood.