From Coltrane to Gucci Mane, Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD pushes boundaries from jazz to hip-hop and beyond

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Badbadnotgood | Photo via Facebook
BADBADNOTGOOD | Photo via Facebook

Standards have always been a way for jazz artists to come together on common ground and find a collective sound. For generations, musicians have joined together in jam sessions and played “Autumn Leaves” or “My Funny Valentine” or “Caravan,” putting their own unique, modern spin on these timeless classics.

Toronto trio BADBADNOTGOOD found their sound with a much more contemporary standard – Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade.” The three members met while students in the jazz program at Toronto’s Humber College, but it was their shared love of hip-hop that brought them together as a group. “Being at jazz school, a lot of people were just into jazz because that’s obviously what they’re studying, but we bonded because we had a lot of other common interests,” says keyboardist Matthew Tavares.

Those interests have now resulted in three albums and a burgeoning career as producers with some of the very hip-hop artists whose work they admired, including collaborations with Odd Future members Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator, and Frank Ocean. Their latest CD, III (Innovative Leisure), is their first composed wholly of their own original music, foregoing the hip-hop and rock covers that distinguished their previous releases. They’ll perform some of that music – and reprise a few of those trademark covers – at MilkBoy on Saturday night.

So is BBNG a jazz trio with hip-hop leanings? A hip-hop crew with jazz roots? According to bassist Chester Hansen, “It’s a difficult question. I don’t know if we could accurately say that it’s one thing or the other. I think it’s really just a combination of all of our influences; jazz and hip-hop are definitely in there in great amounts, but it’s open to interpretation.”

“I wouldn’t really call it jazz because a lot of the songs don’t some of the elements that people consider to be jazz,” adds Tavares. “Other songs do, but maybe they’re missing other elements. It’s really a big mish-mash of stuff we like to listen to, the music we like to learn and approach and explore and be creative with.”

III definitely showcases the hybrid sound that the band has forged over the last several years. Opening track “Triangle” begins with a stealthy stop-start intro that wouldn’t feel out of place in any modern jazz trio’s set, but soon settles into a hip-hop backbeat and a dramatic, electronics-laced chorus that leads into an acoustic piano solo. “Can’t Leave the Night” is a vibe-y electronic cut that begs for an MC to jump in, while “Differently, Still” is an almost parodically straight acoustic jazz ballad. “Since You Asked Kindly” follows with a Krautrock synth sound.

The first precedent that comes to mind is The Bad Plus, who made a similar splash two decades ago with jazz trio versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart of Glass,” carrying the pop/rock aesthetic into their own adventurous jazz excursions. Despite the similarities, that trio hasn’t been a particular influence either musically or career-wise, according to BBNG. “Most of the jazz that we’re influenced by comes the classic era, like Coltrane at the Village Vanguard where he plays a blues for twenty minutes but it’s so expressive,” Tavares says. “Most of our contemporary music listening is rap.”

And as far as a model for their professional approach, that came not from the jazz world but from their future collaborators in Odd Future. “We were listening to Odd Future’s Bastard mixtape when it was pretty fresh on the web,” Sowinsku says, “so we were stoked that we knew it when probably not many other people at the school did. Hearing their DIY approach and realizing that if you just have the ambition to do something you can do it was definitely influential. We took that to heart and tried to create our own ideas; we like playing hip-hop and went to jazz school, so that’s why we do what we do.”

Still young (the early buzz for their first couple of records centered on the fact that they hadn’t hit 21 yet), BBNG aren’t as inventive in their jazz playing as the Bad Plus, but their music seems to be leaning away from jazz and more towards the hip-hop realm with each release anyway.

“I don’t think any of us really went to jazz school thinking we were going to play jazz as our profession,” says drummer Alez Sowinski. “Jazz is a great tool to learn so many different things in terms of rhythmic language and melody and harmony and style so that you can use all those skills and adapt them to playing different things, but in school you don’t really get to focus too much on your personal music. The three of us wanted to learn a lot of music, but we have so many avenues to explore.”

All three have since left school to pursue the trio and their production opportunities full-time, and recently took another major life step: getting out of their parents’ house. “We moved out of my dad’s basement apartment space where we were annoying other tenants,” Sowinski says. “We got our own little studio spot in Toronto with this great producer friend of ours, Frank Dukes.”

The trio released their self-titled debut in 2011, featuring their versions of songs by A Tribe Called Quest, Waka Flocka Flame, and more than one Odd Future cover. Their follow-up came a year later with covers of songs by Kanye West, My Bloody Valentine, and Feist. The Bandcamp releases garnered enough attention that they soon found themselves in basement jam sessions with Tyler the Creator and backing Frank Ocean at Coachella.

Another opportunity brought them back to another formative moment, an MF Doom show attended by both Sowinski and Tavares.

“There was this crazy four-hour delay but then he finally showed up, which was definitely an exciting moment even after all the wait. I guess that’s how it works sometimes with the Super Villain,” Sowinski says. “Last November we played a show with MF Doom and got to meet him, no mask, face to face. That was a pretty insane experience, being huge fans of his.”

One influence of the masked rapper was a pig mask that Sowinski would often sport on stage, a hint of the theatrical that he’s since abandoned as the trio’s focus has turned more toward original music. “I felt that if we were going to move forward with creative, original music, then it would be necessary to keep things more honest and less gimmicky,” he says.

With the increased infiltration of synths and electronics into their recordings, Hansen points out that the studio and the live stage are becoming two separate arenas for the trio. “They’re definitely two different approaches to playing,” he says, “but I think that we always try to picture the energy that the song will have live when we’re recording or vice versa, to portray the feeling that’s in the recording when we play live. But when you’re playing a show you might do something that you’d never do in the studio because there’s a bunch of screaming people in the room and it’s a really energetic vibe, which leads to a lot of cool moments musically.”

The two worlds, and their variety of influences, will continue to cross-pollinate, according to Sowinski, who hopes to see some of the rappers they’ve been working with in a production capacity pop up on future BBNG releases. As he says, “We’d definitely like to keep building and trying some of our weird ideas on someone who might not go certain places musically or sonically. We just want to keep working and have fun.”

BADBADNOTGOOD headlines MilkBoy on Saturday June 14th; tickets and information on the 21+ show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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