BADBADNOTGOOD. Sean Berrigan
Hello, fans of the Toronto band BADBADNOTGOOD. Thanks for stopping by, truly. I'm delighted that somebody turned you on to the joys of improvised instrumental music; as you can see, it's an experience like none other.
The three young band members — "No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album," their new mixtape claims — create music that could theoretically be called "jazz," but you probably heard about them from a friend or media outlet for whom jazz isn't a top priority. (In fact, the consensus among professional jazz musicians and journalists seems to be notably against them, and further remarks still trickle in.) Their repertoire merges jazz training with their musical milieu: covers of songs by au courant musicians, extrapolations upon hip-hop beats and a few original compositions too.
BBNG is currently on a short U.S. tour, including a New York City stop and a gig backing singer Frank Ocean at Coachella. That's led to another wave of press about the band's connection to the music of today. Being a jazz journalist, I'd like to point out that this connection essentially describes the entire history of jazz: Musicians have always adapted pop music of the age to their own ends. So if you're into what BBNG is doing, here are five other bands who think similarly, but aren't as well-known outside the jazz world. For the sake of simplicity, I've picked only trios of keyboards, bass and drums — just like BADBADNOTGOOD itself.
Five Jazz Piano Trios For Fans Of BADBADNOTGOOD
Vijay Iyer Trio
Jimmy Katz/Courtesy of the artist
The Vijay Iyer Trio. Jimmy Katz/Courtesy of the artist
Vijay Iyer is a self-taught pianist who has worked in many different musical contexts, including collaborations with several rappers/spoken-word artists. Sound familiar? It's a similar profile to BADBADNOTGOOD's keyboardist Matthew Tavares. With his own trio, Iyer takes on songs by contemporaries like Flying Lotus and M.I.A. — but that's just a starting point to his creative vision. If he hasn't already, BBNG drummer Alex Sowinski might be interested in studying Iyer's percussionist Marcus Gilmore, who makes complex fills sound easy and simple beats sound crushing and thick. Have a listen to a recent live set, or check out the records Accelerando and Historicity.
Now Vs. Now
Johnny Moreno/Courtesy of the artist
Now vs. Now. Johnny Moreno/Courtesy of the artist
In addition to his study with bebop master Barry Harris, keyboardist Jason Lindner has plenty of experience as a studio musician, big-band leader and musical director for leading lights like Meshell Ndegeocello and Lauryn Hill. BBNG would admire his ability to arrange tactfully for improvisers, no matter what the sonic context. With his electric Now vs. Now trio, he's playing with plenty of synths — and working in spoken-word artists, and Byzantine chants, and the most unclassifiable of grooves. Even the band name poses today against itself. We've recorded these guys too.
Gerald Clayton Trio
Emra Islek/Courtesy of the artist
Gerald Clayton. Emra Islek/Courtesy of the artist
On paper, this seems like the sort of band BADBADNOTGOOD wouldn't like — three dudes who met at a Grammy-affiliated camp for the most talented high school jazz musicians in the U.S., who often play venues where they're expected to wear suits and such. But being in their twenties, Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders and Justin Brown come from an era where jazz was not pop, and even their takes on jazz standards turn them inside-out. If BBNG were ever curious about if an older jazz aesthetic can sound young and fresh today, it might take after these guys. Here's a 2010 recording of the band.
Lin Liu/Courtesy of the artist
Romain Collin. Lin Liu/Courtesy of the artist
The French pianist made at least two good decisions on his new album The Calling. One was to grab bandmates Luques Curtis (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums), two fellow young musicians full of finesse. Another was to treat the recording studio as a fourth instrument, with subtle electronic manipulations that could only have come from someone who has heard such textures on record many times. BBNG might admire how three musicians noted for their technical accomplishments can apply them to a highly personal, contemporary vision. You can preview the album at the Palmetto Records website.
Robert Glasper Trio/Robert Glasper Experiment Rhythm Section
Cognito-Frolab/Courtesy of the artist
Robert Glasper. Cognito-Frolab/Courtesy of the artist
A pianist best known for his synthesis of jazz and hip-hop, Glasper is easily the most obvious pick on this list. Instead, I want to use this space to address what I believe to be a common misunderstanding. You may have heard BBNG's keyboard player Matt Tavares exclaim "F— Robert Glasper" in a recent interview. If you read the full quotation, Tavares is rejecting Glasper's new album and some of Glasper's opinions in the bratty way BBNG members reject a lot of things. Meanwhile, the first BBNG mixtape ends in a cut called "Outro/Glasper," where Glasper is apparently sampled, and BBNG's first live recording covers Slum Village's "Fall in Love" much as Glasper's bands pioneered. I'm willing to bet that Glasper's organic adoption of hip-hop as a live instrumental music was a huge early inspiration, and if pressed, BBNG's members would certainly acknowledge as much. Check out Glasper's previous album, Double-Booked, for something that BBNG would like more than the new Black Radio — or a live show for a better example of how flexible and go-anywhere Glasper's bands are.
So if they're so great and attuned to the present moment, why aren't these bands I've discussed — with the exception of Robert Glasper's — attaining the buzz that BBNG is? Part of it has to do with the inflammatory nature of BBNG's public comments toward jazz education and jazz tradition in certain recent interviews. That makes it easy for journalists who don't know much about current jazz (one Vice magazine interviewer wrote that "jazz blows" in the first sentence of her lede) to contrast this band to an incompletely-portrayed establishment. Meanwhile, musicians whose careers have benefited from immersion within the jazz community — even those who eventually make art their mentors may not approve of — are much less likely to spurn their peers, elders and teachers.
Another part has to do with BBNG's savvy in online self-promotion. The band has released two free mixtapes, two free live recordings, a Tumblr, a Twitter feed and several YouTube videos of their covers, all with elegant graphic design and CPTL LTTR branding and aesthetic in-jokes. (Pig mask, anyone?) Jazz PR representation, on balance, has failed to execute this sort of 21st century grassroots promotional activity. A general lack of institutional wherewithal accounts for some of this. More importantly, making music videos and free studio recordings requires financial resources that professional musicians and record companies aren't willing to risk. (This is especially true for cover songs, which require copyright clearances to record legally.) Record companies don't expect to recoup their investments on most jazz artists, whose track record of commercial success is not stellar. And professional musicians aren't as apt to self-promote for free as BBNG is: They have careers and often families, and expect to be paid for their services, not unreasonably.
I do admire BADBADNOTGOOD for making original music that feels personal to its members, and articulating its connection with the zeitgeist. Frustrated by a flat-footed prevailing order that wasn't comprehending its ideas, the band took its message directly to fans. That's a lesson in hustle many in jazz might learn from.
But I also believe that plenty of astounding bands have a similar outlook when it comes to creativity. All of those mentioned here have more years of study and bandstand experience under their belts, which translates to greater depth of creative possibility. There are many more, too: Fellow piano trios The Bad Plus, the Brad Mehldau Trio, Medeski Martin and Wood or Jason Moran and the Bandwagon have been celebrated for their pop music connections for over a decade now.
The fact that you haven't heard much about these bands is a problem the jazz community ought to address. But in the correct light, their art ought to speak for itself.