[13 May 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
Recently, a friend of mine who moved to Germany gave me a whole bunch of jazz and classical vinyl LPs and CDs. Rather than ship them to Germany, or put them into storage, she wanted them to be played and enjoyed, so she gave them to me. I got my hands on a ton of classic jazz from Dave Brubeck, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and more. I’ve tended to enjoy these records after a particularly grueling day of work, and while I wouldn’t say that I’m a student of jazz, I happen to know what I like. Which brings us to the rather oddly named BADBADNOTGOOD, a trio from Toronto, Canada. This is an outfit featuring Matthew Tavares on keys, Chester Hansen on bass, and Alex Sowinski on drums.
After releasing a couple of EPs, the group is now releasing its first full-length album, rather unimaginatively titled III. You may have heard of this group, not so much maybe if you’ve travelled in jazz circles, but certainly if you’ve listened to a great deal of underground rap or hip-hop. It turns out, in 2011, this outfit released a bunch of jazzy covers of Odd Future tracks, which didn’t endear them to their professors at Humber College’s Music Performance program, where they were studying, but caught the attention of Tyler, the Creator, who basically pushed the band viral with a video that was posted to YouTube of the group. Since then, BADBADNOTGOOD have collaborated with the likes of Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, MF Doom, Pharaoh Monch and RZA, among many, many more. So that should be a tip-off. While III is an album of all original material, and features no hip-hop covers, this is a record where jazz is played squarely through a hip-hop lens, and, unless there is wax in my ears, I hear a little bit of post-rock, if you believe that post-rock is rock music played on rock instruments unconventionally, along the likes of Tortoise. There’s a lot going on with III, which makes it ultimately worthy of your time.
What do I like about III, bearing in mind my most rudimentary knowledge of both jazz and hip-hop? A fair amount, actually. My favourite cut on the album is “Differently, Still”. It’s a low key, soft, lilting ballad, that feels like it could have come out of ‘50s jazz. It’s got that late night in the club feel, and is probably the one moment on the record that could be described as pure jazz. There’s no hip-hop beats to be found, just a rambling piano line, brushed drums, and an upright bass performed like these were students of the grand masters of the genre. It’s unfortunate that there are no other moments quite like this on the album since this is the one part of the record that feels classic in nature. It’s simply outstanding, and I cannot be effusive enough in my praise of this one particular song.
If there’s a reason to buy this LP, “Differently, Still” is certainly it. However, that’s not to say the rest of the record is a slouch, not by any standards. It is just different in feel and texture. Opening cut “Triangle” seems cut from the Gil Scott-Heron songbook, just sans vocals, as the drummer rides the ride cymbal as a lithe piano offers staccato-beat notes. And “Confessions”, a few tracks later, offers a skronky jazz saxophone scatting over a simple and direct drum beat. It’s nice.
What don’t I like about III? I have the same issue as one early reviewer of this album with “Since You Asked Kindly”. It just doesn’t fit on the record. While, on one hand, it is a good song, this is a cop towards disco, and the track sounds an awful lot like “Popcorn” by Gershon Kingsley, famously covered by Hot Butter in 1972. It just doesn’t work in the larger context of III and it sticks out like a sore thumb. This, however, is pretty much the only place on the album where the group steps back from its jazz and hip-hop leanings, and the rest of the affair is remarkably cohesive. “Kaledoscope”, with its Rhodes piano line, nestles quite comfortably into jazz-rock fusion territory, and remarkably rides the vibe for a good seven minutes. “Hedron” is very similar, with a crystalline smattering of piano, before a bass line kicks in without any instrumentation laid over it, before heading off into Thievery Corporation land. And final track “CS60” ends things on a much more Eastern kind of feel, almost feeling quite psychedelic or maybe even classical, since there are strings, in nature.
So there’s a lot of good stuff to be had on III, even if one song doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny in the context of the rest of the album. After hearing this, I almost wished that the band had decided to call itself GOODGOODVERYGOOD, but the cheeky band name is probably an affront to those college professors who couldn’t get a handle on the band’s hip-hop nature. While some might decry the fact that there are no rap covers to be found here, the stuff that got the band noticed in the first place, as far as jazzy records go, III is actually pretty good, and stands fairly tall amongst the giants of classic jazz and more modern influences.
This is an appealing sampler of what this Toronto trio is capable of, and should be enjoyable for those who love improvised jazz with more modern leanings. While III isn’t the perfect record that we all wish it could be, it is disarming and very, very grand. As I’ve said before, I might not know an awful lot about jazz, but I know what I like, and I generally like this a fair bit. Maybe, just maybe, this album will take its rightful place amongst those jazz and classical LPs that were so bequeathed to me by that friend living in Germany now, which is hardly faint praise indeed. III is well worth your time and money out of your pocketbook if you’re definitely into this sort of thing.