Thundercat walked on stage and unassumingly started tuning his bass. I was fairly drunk and was getting chastised by some dude who I had attempted to put my bag on because he was sitting on the floor and I thought he was a table (folks, don’t sit on the fucking floor at a packed standing show. It’s selfish and drunk people will try to put their shit on you and it won’t be anyone’s fault but your own). The house was full but not sold out, and the cheers were liberal when Thundercat took the stage and he kind of winced after hearing them as if to say, ‘what the hell are you cheering for?’ It was an appropriately goofy reaction by an admittedly goofy dude; despite solid contributions to some of the most acclaimed records of the past few years, Thundercat has yet to really take off on his own, his summer single “Them Changes” being the closest to solo success the man has experienced. I suspect the majority of the audience, admittedly myself included, were at the show solely because of the low ticket price and a chance to possibly see a cut off of Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly performed live in the flesh. Thundercat is often tagged as an electronic artist, and the crowd reflected that misnomer, mostly comprised of hip dudes in their mid-to-late 20’s. I’m positive no one there had any idea what was coming. I sure as hell didn’t.
Thundercat was accompanied on stage by two other musicians: a keyboardist and a drummer. The set started out in a straightforward manner, with Thundercat crooning the opening lines to one of the tracks off his latest EP, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam with his distinctive falsetto. After a few bars, a sly smile spread across his face and he made the kind of eye contact with his drummer, the kind of quick, loaded communication only people who have worked together for years can master. All of the sudden, the drummer kicked the song into triple time, and all virtuosic hell broke loose. My jaw steadily dropped further and further to the ground as Thundercat and co. solo’d for a solid ten minutes with an unwaning, furious intensity. It was basically noise jazz, Thundercat gritting his teeth and bobbing his head as his fingers danced along his fretboard to the impossibly precise whiplash of his drummer’s snares. It may have been the many stimulants in my system, but it felt revelatory. I was in heaven, but when the song stopped and I snapped out of my ecstatic daze, I remembered my tastes weren’t exactly congruent with most people’s. When Thundercat erupted into soloing during the second song I realized that this was going to be the norm rather than the exception. I thought for sure the abrasion would scare off the casual fans who had turned up just for the hell of it, and throughout the hour long set I kept an eye on the audience, curious to see how many people would be worn down and leave, convinced it would be a pretty high number. But from my vantage point, not a single person left.
The show demanded your focus and attention, often for drawn out periods that most people these days are not comfortable with. The trope of the modern age’s ADHD approach to consumption has been well documented by this point; I’m not going to bore you with another lecture on how the internet has ruined our capacity for paying attention to something for longer than 140 characters or the length of a gif. I’m not even necessarily arguing that it’s a bad thing. Humans’ ability to take in vast amounts of stimuli in short periods of time could be seen as adaptive, another step forward in our evolutionary march to the end. I’m just saying this erratic style of consumption definitely exists. Just look to the emergence of electronic music, specifically EDM, as the most popular form of music currently. EDM is the ultimate embodiment of ADHD culture, providing the ultimate background to our multi-platform existence, where your various forms of online identity can sometimes feel as equally important as our actual corporeal selves. No wonder our attention spans have gone out the window; between our Facebooks, Twitter accounts, Instagrams and whatever other digital mask we decide to wear, we barely have time to focus on any one thing. It’s stressful leading all these lives, and EDM provides either the big, dumb, thoughtless escape from all this, or the platform-spanning soundtrack to keeping it all together. Can you imagine actually sitting down and listening to an EDM track? EDHD, a term I am coining literally right now, has been the zeitgeist for a while now, with no apparent signs of slowing down.
Something bizarre started happening this year, though. Kendrick Lamar released his g-and-p funk inflected To Pimp A Butterfly to massive acclaim, and just a few months later, the saxophonist from that record, Kamasi Washington, released a three disc jazz fusion epic called, well, The Epic. And people LOVED it. The album currently sits in the top 50 best reviewed records of the year on Metacritic, earning rave reviews from youth favourites Pitchfork and Noisey. Any cultural theorist worth their salt knows that culture is a constant flow of action and reaction, but I don’t think anyone could have really predicted this newfound interest in jazz. Jazz is commonly viewed as ‘academic’ music, lying outside the parameters of mainstream acceptance. But I guess it only makes sense that we’d turn to something so ‘smart’ as jazz after being bludgeoned to death with the stupidity of EDM.
The thing with the internet, though, is that it has this uncanny ability to create ideological movements that may not necessarily exist outside of the computer. Things get over-exaggerated. Have you ever actually met anyone who claims to be a fan of PC Music? Based off the internet, you’d think the label was revolutionizing pop music and had this massive diehard cult following seeking to have them take over the airwaves. But in real life…radio silence. It’s the same reason Bernie Sanders seems like a shoe in for Democratic candidate on the internet, but in real life, most people I’ve talked to haven’t even heard of him. Our online experiences are carefully curated so that we receive the content we want to receive, and it’s easy to confuse this curation with the way things actually are. Which is why up until Sunday night, I’ve been very wary of the jazz resurgence as a primarily internet based phenomenon.
Thundercat seems like the appropriate catalyst to my revelation that jazz may actually be back, like, for real. It wasn’t until the man broke into a mashup of To Pimp A Butterfly’s “Complexion” and Flying Lotus’s Thundercat featuring track “MmmHmm” that I realized the latter artist’s record Cosmogramma was one of the first signs of jazz rearing its head in popular culture this decade, foreshadowing and possibly influencing the resurgence itself. Thundercat was all over Cosmogramma and FlyLo’s subsequent records, not to mention Kendrick and Washington’s zeitgeist-defining records of this year.
Whether he’s aware of it or not, Thundercat is one of the most influential artists of our generation, and the fact that his latest,The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam is far and away his best work signifies that the man is just getting started. Is jazz really gonna make a full-fledged comeback and re-teach us how to pay attention? Are people sick of paying absurd amounts of money just to watch white guys push buttons on stage? Was I just really faded and making over-arching conclusions about society that aren’t necessarily true? One or all of these may be the case, only time will tell. In the meantime, go catch a Thundercat show. You just may end up thinking about what you saw longer than you’re used to.
Read M. Milner’s take on the resurgence of Jazz in 2015 here.