Funky Nights: My Evening at the Portland Jazz Festival Featuring Thundercat
It was a freezing night, and I had just gorged myself on Ethiopian food. I was standing in the tail end of a line wrapping around over half the Portland Art Museum waiting to go to the PDX Jazz Festival/Soul’d Out evening concert on leap day, featuring Thundercat, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Brown Calculus. I had to pee so bad my kidneys hurt. I had accidentally left my earplugs at the hotel room in my backpack so I had run to the Safeway across the street and buy an 80-pack of cheap foam plugs, which were bulging out of my stupid-ass pocket. When I finally got in, got some relief in the bathroom, and snagged a Thundercat shirt and poster at the merch booth, I walked into the venue and was hit with cool circulating air, low blue lighting, and the sound being loud enough to project cleanly but not so loud it was overbearing. I had bought 50 earplugs for nothing. I wasn’t at my usual metal show. I had entered the world of J A Z Z.
Fairly recently something happened and the funk was suddenly within me. Over the years I’ve been soaking up funk, jazz, soul, rap, and hiphop. Got way into Prince and Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and started browsing the funk and jazz tags in bandcamp on the regular. I started taking lessons for funk and jazz electric bass. It was like listening to Prince caused me to trip and fall down a funky rabbit hole and I don’t think I want to ever get out.
Anyway, the concert. That’s why you’re hopefully still reading this.
Brown Calculus was probably the coolest act they could have chosen for an opener. Slow, meditative, plenty of shades of jazzhop and free jazz coming from the incredible talent behind the keys and their sultry vocalist. It was the first time I’d seen a group bring on interpretive dancers, which helped add to their otherworldly ethereal feel. Very cool.
Next up was Georgia Anne Muldrow, who like Thundercat is an artist on the venerable Brainfeeder label. Going back and looking at her recorded music, I really dig it—lots of funk and hiphop influence, socially conscious. She’s definitely an artist worth looking into. About halfway through her set, though, I got a little tired of how much scatting and vamping she was doing. What had started out as something fairly cool and interesting had gotten a little grating, though there were a few highlights even toward the end, such as when she brought her partner Dudley “Declaime” Perkins onstage and they broke into heavy-hitting rap. Their collaborative work under the name G&D is very much worth checking out.
After Georgia Anne Muldrow was the reason for the evening, the whole reason I jumped at the chance for tickets to the PDX Jazz Festival. Thundercat. The dude was hilarious and perfectly in sync with his band–Dennis Hamm on keys and Justin Brown on drums. After working the crowd a bit, telling some jokes and playing a few songs off his upcoming album It Is What It Is, the trio broke out into a breakneck speed thrash version of their song “Captain Stupido,” and the reins never came back on after that.
Thundercat was shredding on his hot pink six string bass, and the three musicians traded solos, coming back together often enough to keep the song somewhat on track. They were having fun, the crowd was having fun, and everyone over 60 who thought jazz had ended with the Benny Goodman Orchestra left the crowd shaking their heads. It was a fantastic night. It was a good enough night that I, though normally so reserved it’s almost crippling, started bobbing my head from side to side with the beat, and my feet were soon tapping and moving around as well.
— Ben Serna-Grey (@bensernagrey) March 1, 2020
He took a short break to explain what brought the upcoming album into being. After a series of personal tragedies, where multiple people close to him had died, he had trouble processing what that kind of loss means in a life, and came to the conclusion that it is what it is.
I know several of us here around the bowl have also experienced personal tragedies recently. It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that there aren’t really reasons and answers for all of these things. It is what it is.
That isn’t to say that the bulk of what they played were downers. That wasn’t the vibe of the show. There were plenty of funny songs, fun moments. Life is short, get down and groove. It was something foreign to me as someone who had almost exclusively gone to metal and classical shows for most of my life, but it was infectious. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but fuck it.
5 Flaming Toilets Ov Hell, would absolutely see Thundercat again.
It Is What It Is comes out April 3 through Brainfeeder.