Liner Notes: The Radically Modern Jazz of BADBADNOTGOOD and ‘IV’

On June 23rd 2016 » By Paul Thompson


As you read this—whether it’s fresh out of the plastic or picked up after years on a shelf—chances are the four members of BADBANOTGOOD are crisscrossing the globe en route to or from a new string of performances. Since they started playing together at the beginning of this decade, the Canadian jazz outfit (well, not purely jazz, but we’ll get to that) has become one of the most well-reviewed acts in live music for their unique combination of precision and fluidity. So in support of the release of IV,their fourth full-length record under the BBNG banner, the group has wrapped up a hectic run stateside and jetted across the Atlantic to play all through Europe. And as even a cursory listen will convince you, the passport stamps have been earned.

BBNG's core members met while they were music—jazz—students at Humber College, just north of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. They quickly gained a small cult following online for re-imagining hip-hop songs; some such experiments made it onto their self-titled debut (officially BBNG) from the following year. Chester Hansen (bass), Alexander Sowinski (drums), and Matthew Tavares (keys) were tapping into something that would prove potent in years to come.

That record did plenty to bolster the word-of-mouth fanfare that had carried the group since singles first started trickling onto YouTube. Less than a year after BBNGhit (digital) shelves, they returned with BBNG2, a grimmer, often more technical record that accelerated their buzz, which was then beginning on snowball.

On the sequel, saxophonist Leland Whitty, a long-time collaborator, was officially credited as a featured guest on two tracks. For IV,Whitty has been added to the group proper after being in and around BBNG for years. But as Hansen explains, the resources weren’t there to make him a proper partner until recently. “It was long overdue to have the means to bring him in full-time and play every show, and to be in the studio,” he says. But having him around permanently “expands what we do by a whole other dimension. To have that fourth element in there is amazing—and he plays every instrument, so that helps too.”

But back to the initial rise: The same month they dropped BBNG2, the then-trio served as the band-in-residence at Coachella, where they made the most of one of the largest captive audiences any musicians could have. What’s more, they served as the backing band for Odd Future and for Frank Ocean’s solo sets, further highlighting their line-straddling between out-and-out jazz and something closer to hip-hop and pop. (It was around this time that BBNG crafted “Hoarse,” the gasping, monolithic song from fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt’s commercial debut, Doris.)

From there, the group’s creative direction took two concurrent, but diverging roads. For their third album, titled simply III, BBNG eschewed the covers of popular, generally hip-hop songs from their first two LPs in favor of original compositions. In doing so, they struck a delicate balance, ingratiating themselves with more conservative fans and critics while retaining the looseness and controlled chaos that had made them so popular with younger and more experimentally-minded listeners.

But the full-fledged forays into rap continued, eventually reaching an unlikely climax. BBNG was billed alongside Ghostface Killah, the legendary Wu-Tang Clan rapper, for his album Sour Soul. Together with the revered Frank Dukes, BBNG produced the entirety of the record, which was well received by listeners and critics alike. In addition to showcasing the Staten Island native’s inimitable vocals and writing style, Sour Soulfeatured collaborations with Detroit stalwarts Danny Brown and Elzhi, Chicago up-and-comer Tree, and the underground hero MF DOOM. In short, the LP was a must-have for many music fans, and further cemented BBNG as one of the most important cross-genre lynchpins working today. But before long, it was time to head back to the studio.

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Like musical theatre and scripted television, jazz and hip-hop are uniquely, undeniably North American art forms. Though the latter genre was born out of funk and disco in the late 1970s, many of its landmark artists embody the ethos of jazz: loose, visceral, instinctive. Some hip-hop acts--A Tribe Called Quest, or more recently Kendrick Lamar--have successfully repurposed jazz, but the older genre has seldom made successful inroads into new generations of rap fans. And that’s what makes BBNG so unique: their ability to meld jazz and instrumental hip-hop into something so elusive, so unique, something altogether their own.

On IV, BBNG decide to expand their universe, which was already one of the most compelling, labyrinthine worlds in pop music today. Those describing instrumental music often refer to its textures, especially when discussing the interplay between two instruments or the way a producer manipulates two disparate samples. But IVis so carefully made that the same effect can be achieved by the same instrument on the same song: snares that attack and recede, pianos that seem to articulate complicated internal monologues.

Some of this is no doubt born from the traveling afforded to BBNG by their recent success. “Going to places like Brazil or some places in Europe and seeing DJs there, or going to a club in South Africa, you’re exposing yourself to local scenes, and it’s really inspiring,” Hansen says.  “Seeing what people in different places are excited about musically can really give you perspective on the stuff you write at home.” He adds that the new material “feels more informed by all the experiences we’ve been through over the past few years, places we’ve been to.”

For the first time, guest vocalists are welcomed into the fold. Some artists find collaboration stressful and cluttering, but BBNG simply seems freer to chase down creative rabbit holes than ever before. “Everyone came to our studios and we did it all there,” Hansen explains. He’s quick to qualify his statements, saying that he harbors no ill will for people who put songs together via email, but nonetheless lays out a case for the real thing. “Being in the room with whoever you’re working with is such a huge difference, just to be able to connect personally—to get a feel for what the other artist is about and find a way to combine what we do with what they do. We always come up with something that we would never write on our own, and I’m sure it’s the same for the other artists involved.”

The effect is apparent immediately. See “Lavender,” a collaboration with the Montreal-based producer Kaytranada, which pairs delicate, skittering production with a punishing low end. Or take the virtuosic closer, which underscores superb performances by Whitty and Tavares with a grand swell of strings. On “Hyssop of Love,” upstart Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins moves languidly, stretching out taunts (“I heard your plug was drrrrry”) before he snaps upright (“Never needed no dollars to prove worth”). The result is not just BBNG’s most expansive, most dynamic effort to date, but their best. Lest anyone think the group is only concerned with blurring genre lines, the title track alone is enough to ensure the most discerning jazz purists will have to respect BBNG’s technical chops.

If there’s an energy that reverberates through the record, it comes from that close proximity. Though BBNG is in some ways a radically modern project, its members finalize and record songs with physical instruments and when all four members are in the same room, even when there’s no collaborator involved. (As for the guests on IV,Hansen says that in nearly every case, the sessions yielded multiple songs that later had to be whittled down to what appears on the LP you’re holding right now.) The members boast that their new studio, in Toronto’s Little Italy district—about a 30-minute drive from the school where they met—has afforded them an ever-increasing access to local talent. Where superb co-writers or virtuosic sessions musicians were once pipe dreams, they’re now coming through to work at a moment’s notice.

IV is a master class in mood. The opening three-song suite (“And That, Too.,” “Speaking Gently,” and the Sam Herring-assisted “Time Moves Slow”) is a slow, slinking creep, like moving uneasily through an abandoned house. And while BBNG explores different tones on subsequent tracks, that feeling--the search, the push for the unknown--is the prevailing theme. “Chompy’s Paradise” is peaceful and serene, but ends on an uncertain note, unresolved. Like most great artists before them, the quartet understands that it’s more important to raise questions than to answer them.


 

Perhaps more than anything, the fact that BBNG have been able to reach such creative heights speaks to their willingness to buck convention. It goes beyond blurring genre lines: while jazz is experiencing a major resurgence as part of the American pop music landscape, the group members are reticent to discuss their place in the genre, or their role in bringing it to the forefront. In fact, one gets the impression that they spend little to no time ruminating on such things, which is probably a good thing for creatives trying to stitch together something unique.

It’s evidenced in the way Hansen speaks about jazz’s spot at the forefront of the summer music circuit: “All you have to do is look at festival lineups and see Hiatus Kaiyote and Thundercat and Kamasi [Washington]. Kendrick [Lamar] and everyone is now incorporating sounds like that into what they do. Seeing the exposure grow for incredibly talented people like that is awesome.” He goes on, “I guess maybe there’s a bit of a shift going on to where the public is interested in people playing real instruments and seeing how people interact and play with each other.

Or maybe it’s because, like mentioned earlier, “jazz" is an imprecise—or at least reductive—way to classify BadBadNotGood. “I don’t think we’d even identify our music as jazz, 100 percent,” Hansen says. “It’s a major influence for us and it inspires how we approach playing all music, from the way we learn songs and write parts to the way we improvise and connect with each other in the studio and on stage. But we don’t want to claim that we’re…” He trails off, before alluding to the complicated feelings some have about the form’s modern iterations: “That word has so much baggage for some people.

“For us, we love to play everything,” he says. “But yeah, it’s super cool when people check us out and then tell us that we put them onto cool jazz. Being able to inspire someone’s listening habits is amazing, it’s the highest compliment.”

Whether IVbrings about, or is part of, a revolution of any sort seems distinctly beside the point. The record is focused but free, virtuosic but deeply felt. It’s one of the most compelling pieces of music to see release so far this year, and is the group’s finest work to date. Though the landscape is always crowded with new releases, IVis worth time and attention no matter what you want to call it.

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BADBADNOTGOOD's IV is our album of the month this month. Sign up here by July 15 to receive our special edition of the album.

Paul Thompson

Paul Thompson

Paul Thompson is a writer whose work has appeared in Vulture, Pitchfork, Playboy, and many other publications. He's the author of I FEEL LIKE DYING and the forthcoming WESTERN DEATH FACE. He lives in Los Angeles.

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