Ronald Bruner Jr: “I’m just one person who says let love be a beacon of power”

The virtuoso drummer and singer speaks about his debut album Triumph

On the road to success, it’s easy to get caught up in your own achievements, forgetting those that helped along the way. But for drummer and singer Ronald Bruner Jr, his debut record Triumph has been about everyone but himself.

I'm so happy that our unit is getting an opportunity to bring progressive music back to the forefront

“This album has brought me a sense of humility,” he says. “It's shown me how much you need the love of other people to make your dreams flourish. I feel so thankful, it's changed my life.”

The whole process took 10 years, crystallising at the Kingsize Soundlab sessions in December 2012 but needing further work up to its release this March. The sessions brought together a group of musicians from LA, all of who recorded their debut solo albums that month.

These were school friends Kamasi Washington, Miles Mosely, Cameron Graves, Terrace Martin, Brandon Coleman, Ryan Porter and Tony Austin – known collectively as the West Coast Get Down. Ronald’s brother Stephen AKA Thundercat was also involved. These albums, the most famous of which being Washington’s The Epic, have subsequently revived the public’s interest in jazz.

(Click here to read our interview with Kamasi Washington)

“All of my clique, we are all stepping up for each other, helping support each other get off our feet,” says Bruner. “I recently did my first show off the album. It was with all of my friends and it gave me so much strength.”

For each member of the Get Down, their achievements couldn’t have been made without each other. Friendship, love and unity have been a key message from all of them. We caught up with Bruner to hear more.

What have you learnt from this album?

This record is about love, loving everybody. When people see me, they have to understand that's what I'm about. One of my biggest fears is being misunderstood. Right now, I think people understand who I am, which is beautiful.

Why do you worry about that?

Because this record is a full expression of me. It took me 10 years to make it happen. It has all the colours of my personality in it. So when people take the opportunity to listen it, they hear me, and that makes me happy.

The album is really unique. I’ve never heard drums and vocals mixed like that.

I'm just pushing progressive soul baby. I've just taken all the stuff that I've played with other artists and mixed it into my gumbo. This album is just a sample of that gumbo.

Is love an important message?

Yeah, especially with what's going on now. There's a lot of anger and frustration; so many different issues. I'm just one person who says, in the midst of all this, let love be a beacon of power.

How are things in your own neighbourhood?

Where I grew up, it's always rough. There's all kinds of stuff going on. But I just want to try to give everybody who hears this a sense of joy. Through all these conflicts, if you can be an artist that reunites people, it's a beautiful thing.

Did you grow up with Kamasi in South Central?

No, me and my brother grew up in the Watts area. We went to elementary school in Inner Compton. We moved later on.

I was over at Kamasi's every day, from childhood, practicing and playing video games. It was me, Stephen and him. That was my first rolling buddy. I met Kamasi when I was one. His father and my pops were so close that we just grew up together.

Kamasi mentioned he was playing the drums aged three but when he met you at his birthday party, you were already better than him aged one.

I was a bit of a magic diamond when I was a little one. I remember being at his party. That's one of my earliest memories. 

How did your dads become friends?

They were in a band together back in 1970s, before we were born. Both our parents used to hang out. They went to the same church.

How was the LA scene for you?

We had a place we met up every Thursday called the World Stage. That was Billy Higgins' place. Through the potential that Billy saw in us – including myself, Terrace, my brother, Cameron Graves, a bunch of those dudes – we were getting a lot of opportunities to play with the bigger artists from the neighbourhood. Horace Tapscott was one of them.

It was a bunch of big influencers from the neighbourhood that got us to where we are. 

I was just over there this weekend, at the World Stage, reminiscing with a couple of friends about the times we had back then. The area is changing and the World Stage has relocated.

Could you imagine what your life would be like without jazz?

It's a beautiful thing man. I'm so happy that our unit is getting an opportunity to bring progressive music back to the forefront. Because of the energy we bring to the music, people are like, woah ok. It's also the story of how we're all together. Tonight we're doing Cameron's show. After that, it's Coleman's show. That story brings people in. It shows that friendship and goes with the music.

You guys have created a serious mainstream buzz around jazz.

It feels great man. All that work we put in, it's beautiful to see that people respect us.

Why did your album take so long?

I'm like a perfectionist. It took a lot of years to get it to sound the way it sounds. Even after those sessions we did with Kamasi, I was making changes. It literally took me from the end of 2007. But that was my first baby. I’m working on my second album now and it’s blazing.

During those sessions, did it feel like you were doing something special?

It felt great. We were all able to touch each other's ideas. Anything anyone wanted, we were able to accomplish it.

How important was George Duke to your album?

He was one of my mentors. He was the one who got me to go on this rampage. He saw something in me. George was my friend. He was a serious encourager in what I was doing with the record. He heard my vision and wanted to be a part of it.

He was the one that got me to sing. We were having a conversation about what to do with the album and George was like, 'Ronald man you've got every component to offer, you play drums, you sing. Put together exactly who you are so people know when you walk in the door.' He helped me do that. He was very important, full of joy and laughter.

I miss him dearly. I go and visit him every now and then. When I finished the first master of the record, I went and brought it to him and left it there for him. I miss him so much.

Where were you when you heard he passed away?

I was in LA. I remember I was walking outside when my phone rang.

Throughout his illness, I had been speaking to him. When we had our last conversation, he was doing better. It was so tough what he was going through but he was in good spirits. I thought he was going to be ok. When he started spiralling downward... I was standing outside my place when I got that phone call. I was going somewhere and I broke down. It was so heavy man. That was my dude.

Him and Stanley Clarke [who Bruner also played with] are really responsible for who I am. They really exposed me to so much music. George Duke was always showing me how free you can be in the music. You can do whatever you want, it's an extension of you. He always encouraged me to express myself, letting me sing in the show.

So when he left this earth, I was like, I have to do you the honour and continue that legacy by expressing all the different colours of who I am. George had so many different colours. Musically, he could do everything – from Frank Zappa to a love ballad. I just want to show people that you can still have that freedom.