I find jazz a particularly difficult genre to settle in and get comfortable with.
At its most liberated, there is no questioning the frequent moments of brilliance. But jazz is also frustratingly enigmatic: a frenetic, shape shifting style of music that deliberately does away with the defined structural boundaries and melodic continuities of other styles.
It takes a singularly focused mind to sift through and make sense of the subtly organized chaos of many jazz compositions. And while the rewards are plentiful, it is a type of active listening that doesn’t seem to jive with the internet-driven model of modern media consumption. With our attention constantly being pulled in different directions by this, that, or the other, we are lucky to hang in there for a single song, let alone weather an entire jazz odyssey.
Enter BADBADNOTGOOD, a Canadian quartet who play a brazen, more structurally linear form of jazz that incorporates hip-hop, electronic elements, and R&B. Their style is more conducive to grabbing a modern listener’s attention immediately, rather than making them work for it. And this is not meant to be a dig. The band’s previous records (three albums on their own and a collaborative LP with Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah) are chock-full of slick, captivating exercises in a more accessible type of jazz-fusion.
Their excellent new record, and fourth on their own–aptly entitled IV–finds BADBADNOTGOOD continuing to write jazz-oriented songs for modern audiences. However, this time around there’s also a noticeable push towards embracing musical themes synonymous with the genre’s history, most evident in a recent personnel decision. Saxophonist Leland Whitty, who has collaborated with BADBADNOTGOOD on a number of songs in the past, is now a full-time member, and his schizophrenic style abounds on IV. Whitty’s playing is indebted to jazz titans like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and he acts as a sort of sonic bridge between IV and the traditions that inform it. Songs like the frantic “IV” and the more subdued “Chompy’s Paradise” are two of the most jazz-forward songs in BBNG’s canon thus far, and Whitty’s presence gives these songs a nostalgic feel that comes off sounding far more like homage than pastiche. Many of the other finer moments on the record effectively draw from jazz’s collective memory. Matthew Tavares’ wonderful piano work on the album closer “Cashmere” recalls Vince Guaraldi, and when drummer Alexander Sowinski uses brushwork to explore quieter dynamics on “Structure No. 3”, the song adopts a timeless quality.
Another way in which BADBADNOTGOOD tailors IV for contemporary listeners is by peppering it with guest stars. It’s a natural progression after 2015’s Sour Soul, an LP that saw them join forces with Ghostface Killah. But whereas Sour Soul is uniformly a hip-hop record, IV’s collaborations are far more diverse and the results are impressive. Future Islands’ frontman Samuel Herring features on the velvety smooth “Time Moves Slow”, which finds the band laying down a subtle groove that floats delicately beneath his raspy croon. On “In Your Eyes”, Toronto R&B singer Charlotte Day Wilson stuns with her warm vocal delivery, over instrumentation tastefully plucked from a low-lit jazz dive. These two vocal- heavy songs–along with “Hyssop of Love”, which features excellent verses from Alabama MC Mick Jenkins–demonstrate BADBADNOTGOOD’s ability to craft a universally accessible record without sacrificing moments of experimentation.
Taken as a whole, IV is perhaps the most complete record in BADBADNOTGOOD’s discography. It is a record that is firmly grounded in a contemporary context, yet dedicated to carrying on certain traditions that made its existence possible. It is by no means as borderless or as experimental (or thankfully, as long) as other groundbreaking jazz records, but it has the same fearless musical spirit that has been forever tied to the genre.