One of the best records released last year was a new take on an old and, some might say, outdated genre. It was a jazz record, IV, by the Canadian four-piece BadBadNotGood, whose early albums included slick, skillful covers of everything from Flying Lotus to James Blake, with one record even featuring a medley of themes from the Legend of Zelda.
Meeting as students at Humber College in Toronto, the initial three bonded over a mutual distaste for their program’s limited curriculum and a distaste for more modern jazz-based music such as hip-hop.
“We were a little fed up... You’re paying to be in an institution to learn, and they might not have all the answers to everything you’re trying to discover,” says Alex Sowinski, the group’s percussionist. “You kind of become like, I’m so inspired by this type of music, but no one talks about this music and I can’t get any more information on it.”
Forced to improvise, they released their covers albums on Bandcamp and quickly found a following on the internet. In time, they would go from covering Odd Future songs to backing Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt at festivals and on national TV. They released a collaborative album with Ghostface Killah in 2015, and their production credits include songs with Danny Brown, Freddie Gibbs, and, most recently, on Kendrick Lamar's "Lust."
To say the least, IV is a far cry from their older material, not simply because it includes collaborations with guest musicians and vocalists such as Kaytranada, Mick Jenkins, and Sam Herring of Future Islands. It is a mysterious, profound, and lovely record full of wistful arrangements that recall the funk and soul records frequently used by hip-hop producers as musical building blocks. In a sense, BadBadNotGood is making the kind of music that might have been sampled by the original hip-hop DJs and producers.
“It’s kind of totally gone full circle because of the benefits of writing your own chord progressions and melodies, and the potential publishing,” Sowinski says. “It kind of also makes you really appreciate the masters of the sample flip and people who can really dig for original-sounding music, flip it, and just blow your mind, like the Madlibs and Kaytranadas.”
Along with those two — a legendary hip-hop DJ notorious for crate-digging and a Montreal-raised producer who’s become a cause célèbre among music fans, respectively — BadBadNotGood is one of a few jazz-inclined acts performing at III Points, which will hold its fifth edition at Mana Wynwood October 13 through 15. Also on the bill is Thundercat, an adept bassist on his own or as a collaborator of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. This admittedly small group of musicians, which might also include saxophonists Kamasi Washington and Colin Stetson, performing at festivals around the globe, seems to indicate that jazz, once at the center of the American cultural imagination before being displaced by rock and hip-hop, is making a minor comeback.
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“It’s obviously kind of disappointing that there’s not a whole lot,” Sowinski says, “and it’s kind of limited to certain bands you see touring and playing different bills, but I hope it’s a breaking point for an exciting future in jazz and instrumental performance.”
Regardless of the number of contemporary-jazz artists on stages, it’s clear BadBadNotGood has piqued interest in the genre for a new generation, one that values the group’s sensual, mellow take on jazz over the experimentation that led to its decline. No matter where the bandmates' inspirations lie, to hear them is to adore them.
“Nothing works, I find, when something feels holier-than-thou, and it doesn’t really create an openness for a listener,” Sowinski says. “Sometimes you just need something that really helps you chill and mellow out — that feels good.”
BadBadNotGood. Saturday, October 14, at III Points 2017. Friday, October 13, through Sunday, October 15, at Mana Wynwood, 318 NW 23rd St., Miami; 305-573-0371; manawynwood.com. Tickets cost $125 to $345 via iiipoints.com.