I’ve always had a tendency to try to tether myself to crazy, inspired people. I always have a eye for these sorts of things. That’s the draw of the artisans (of which, even as an editor, DJ [and apparently radio producer when you think about it] and critic, I hope I am somewhat esteemed as such as well), they’re able to do such great, inspiring work in part because their perspective on the world is a little bit more off than the rest of ours. This was always the draw I’ve had to BADBADNOTGOOD. The trio from Toronto, Ontario, of Matthew Tavares on keys, Chester Hansen on bass, and Alex Sowinski on drums has received high praise over the last year for their internet-released, free albums and YouTube videos of their performances of Odd Future songs. Now, their second album, a true realization of where this band is right now– has released, and it’s now time for folks– Jazz Nerds International (I’m bringing it back), hip-hop heads, every other music blogger of every other genre, and Tumblr curators alike– to take notice.
A common complaint I have heard from some in the jazz blogosphere about this trio is about how their talent isn’t really there yet– having some inarticulable quality related to their rough around the edges sound. Honestly, I understand those complaints. In their past work, it would seem like these three, while fervent in their desire to make dope music, still have quite a bit to learn. The reason I stan so hard for BBNG is in large part because their breed of crazy should be nurtured. Their ideas about crossover covers in hip hop and electronic music are nothing new, but they are the most obvious example of the next generation of that line of thinking that comes to mind. (They state so brazenly in the album’s liner notes, “No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album.”) Their irreverence and bursting on the scene hearkens back to the early days of The Bad Plus and all the buzz surrounding that forward-thinking piano trio. Their calls for moshing at their performances are the next phase of Jason Moran taking out the chairs to dance to Fats Waller tunes or Marco Benevento playing jam band festivals. And yes, their brazenness in speech, interviews, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter is very reminiscent of Miles Davis’ unfiltered honesty. They have all the attributes of a real cutting edge jazz band who can once again make us all rethink what this genre is capable of doing, being, becoming, and encompassing. An infusion of youthful vitality is good for that.
However, I completely understand what is more and more looking to become the music school quandary that this group tends to beckon. Some folks in this modern jazz era get out of music school and, when it comes to their compositions and especially their soloing, they’re doing too much. The intellectual (or the New York cocoon) argument starts to hold ground. Sometimes jazz music can get so self-involved that it forgets to appeal to the crowd. I like that BBNG is a group composed 2/3rd of music school dropouts (the group first met at Toronto’s Humber College jazz program) because they don’t fall to the trappings of masturbatory glee in coming up with overly complex rhythms that waylay the jam an audience can connect to (and considering their influences and the importance of each show becoming a party for their typically youthful crowd [who likely have Xs marked on their hands at the door], the jam is the end all and be all for these guys). There most certainly is a simplicity to their sound that I like and is a large part of the reason why I feel they hold so much potential– because their music always sounds like it’s about to build into something more.
The main flaw of this group is their tendency to all want to play the rhythm section. Many tracks on the album seem to build an idea, then about a minute will pass when you’ll think, “Oh, cool. Now that I’ve gotten the head, when is someone going to do something with this? Can a brotha’ get a solo up in here?” (Okay, maybe only I was thinking that last part.) The problem is that the rhythm section is just that. It maintains the rhythm so someone else can do something around it– whether that be soloing, singing, or rapping. The fundamentals of the ideas are always there. Without that, when a rhythm section is playing the same phrases with little variation, it’s just beats, and no one just listens to beats… except maybe other producers. Or rappers who are looking for beats… to do something with them. Much of the first half of the album plays out this way, but there are certain bright spots when one can clearly tell that this group really can go somewhere.
In regards to original compositions which make up five of the albums eleven tracks, it is rather refreshing to hear at length what this group can come up with on their own. The group seems to have been moved quite a lot by electronic music and production, like hanging out with SBTRKT at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards this past January rubbed off a lot of them. This further instills the notion that the bases of their ideas are sound but they don’t seem be doing enough with the canvas they’re creating. It’s because of this that the strongest tracks on the album– “Earl”, “UMW”, and “You Made Me Realise”– are also the tracks that include guests (Leland Whitty on saxophone and Luan Phung on electric guitar respectively). These additions to the sound are at times just what this trio needs. Sometimes, someone needs to stand out front. The other exception to this is “CHSTR”, in which bassist Hansen (duh) does take the opportunity to solo with a certain aplomb (even if his sound is a teeny bit muddled in the mixing). Often, it’s when a guest is added to a song that the arrangements seem to lend themselves to having the guys flex their muscles a little more. It’s really not until about more than halfway through the album when the group seems to find its sea legs, recovering the exploratory feel the band has been known to exhibit, but the mark of inconsistency has already been made. One would hope that the ambition they show at times like the albums latter half (or even latter third) would reflect more on later works. The question of whether or not there’s more there because of a desire to show more restraint than in the past, if they’re good but only after they warm up some, or if they just don’t have enough yet in their bag of tricks will weigh on the mind, but one still can’t help but feel impressed at times when what they pull off in arrangement really works. (I’m betting on the former more than the latter ideas since the moments they do in fact show adeptness at soloing and ambling from the established head are still pretty admirable, you just wish they’d happen much more often.)
The reason why I’m writing this now is to say we should certainly support this band. I’m not saying they could be jazz’s “saviors” as we tend to do when writing about new, exciting folks in the genre (re: Glasper, R. & Spalding, E. [or even Bad Plus, The back in the early Aughts]). But they certainly should be praised for their brand of innovation, their rampant enthusiasm, their youth (which while there certainly are plenty of young folks in jazz lately [if you’re paying attention to them], the vibe around these guys feels like it could be distilled into a Tumblr feed), and their growing fan base. Like them or not, they’re recontextualizing jazz for a new, young audience who could in time learn to appreciate others in the genre (like the aforementioned Glasper, Spalding, and others of that ilk). In that sense, BBNG2 is the perfect album to have to note this moment in time for the band. This album, for all its strengths and weaknesses, is still pretty good (and it’s free, for crying out loud, you might as well cop it). Your head will be coaxed into nodding. When commuting, you will feel like a badass when changing lanes. You will continue to hear from this band (especially if you read Nextbop because I will still stan hard for them). They will continue to rise in prominence inside and outside of jazz circles (which is for the best, jazz is a pretty incestuous scene and it’s rather nice to see these guys flourish as outsiders). And they will continue to grow as artists. All the elements are there and this is still a trio that did not even exist a year and a half ago. They’ve come this far this fast. It’s exciting to see how far they’ll go.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.