Way back in 2015, Nick, Ryan and Scott kicked off Jazz Club with an in-depth discussion of Kamasi Washington‘s phenomenal album The Epic, easily the greatest jazz album of that year and (arguably) the decade thus far. We’ve ventured in different directions since then though, opting for discussions ranging from current events (Ornette Coleman‘s passing) to genre starter kits. Today we’re back with a conversation focused exclusively on a recent release that many of us view as a potential jazz AOTY for 2016. This time, Nick jumps aboard with Jazz Club dynamic duo Scott and Jimmy Two for a dissection of IV, the latest offering from Canadian quartet and overall jazz powerhouse BADBADNOTGOOD. The band has leveraged hip-hop, electronic music and jazz to create some of the most exciting tunes in the genre, so needless to say, we were stoked to see what their fourth proper release had to offer.
Back Back Not Ground
Scott Murphy: Before we dive into IV, I want to gauge everyone’s background with BADBADNOTGOOD, and use that as a point of discussion about the evolution of their career. How did you guys first stumble upon BBNG, and what were your initial thoughts?
Nick Cusworth: I actually only first heard of them through their collab album with Ghostface Killah from last year. Fellow Heavy Bloggers like Ryan “fucking idiot” Castrati were hyping it up, so I checked it out pretty well after the fact and loved it. So when I heard they had a new album in the works I started following them much more closely.
Scott: Have you heard any of their back catalogue? Particularly BBNG 1 and 2?
Nick: I’ve listened to III a couple of times, but not their first two records. They don’t appear to be available on Google Music, which is pretty much how I consume all my music these days. I know their general history and background, which has always been heavily steeped in the intersection of hip-hop and jazz.
Scott: That’s interesting, and it’ll make for a varied discussion since we all have different vantage points. BBNG 1 & 2 were both released as free downloads, and had a much different approach than their newer material.
Jimmy Mullett: If I remember correctly, Scott, you were the one who got me into BBNG when their first album dropped. I loved it, and I was pretty psyched when the second one came out, though I didn’t enjoy it at much as the first. The third one somehow flew past my radar, so I haven’t heard it yet. The Ghostface collab was great, though. Nonetheless, I have a lot of respect for this band; BBNG does an excellent fusion of jazz and hip-hop, and even though they’ve changed their sound a little bit over the years, they’re incredible at what they do.
Scott: Yeah, what the trio essentially did was blend their own jazz instrumentation (piano, bass, drums and occasional guitar and sax) with some inventive, heavily hip-hop influenced covers of songs within rap and beyond. And most importantly, it works; it works REALLY well. Their coves range from Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine to Kanye West, J Dilla and Nas. They’ve been able to create a seamless flow of young, veracious jazz improv and pay homage to some classic artists, with a particular focus on highlighting the strong link between jazz and hip-hop and what that link can accomplish when tinkered with.
Jimmy: Before we jump into IV, let’s not forget the fucking awesome cover they do of “Saria’s Song” from the Zelda games. Without a doubt my favorite track they’ve ever done.
Nick: Haha, I haven’t heard it! I’ll have to check it out.
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Scott: Haha yes, that Zelda cover really lent to their “young,” playful aesthetic, which I feel as really fallen away over the course of their (brief) career.
Jimmy: I don’t know about that; I feel like it’s still there, it’s just not exactly “playful.” Rather, it’s youthful to me. There’s a lot of energy in what they do.
Scott: I don’t mean that as a negative, but the band has certainly matured quite a bit in a short period of time.
Jimmy: That’s definitely true.
BBNG Episode IV – A New Hope
Nick: My impression of III when I heard it was that it sounded a lot like a live instrumental and more organic version of a lot of what groups like Skalpel do with samples. In that sense though, IV is a pretty big departure for them in a lot of ways.
Scott: That’s an accurate assessment, for sure. I think what threw me off when I first heard III was the complete abandonment of covers. It was a very stark transition from pumping out quasi-mixtapes to becoming a full blown contemporary jazz act. And like Nick said, IV takes that concept and takes it a step forward into intriguing territory.
Nick: IV feels like a reversal, or very intentional transition, at least, from playful hip-hop fans who also are good at blending modern beat-centric jazz into a more serious and mature (two words I hate generally in case that’s not obvious) jazz group who are able to use their myriad of influences to create really genre-bending and genre-agnostic modern jazz.
Scott: I’ve gotten a completely different vibe from III on, which feels much, much more mature than their first couple of albums. They definitely still have energy, but it comes from a different place and is directed at different goals. And while I think III tried to do that, IV feels much more successful, for a number of reasons, with the main problem being the transitions between records. III flows much, much more smoothly into IV than was the case with BBNG2 and III.
Jimmy: Again, I haven’t listened to III, but I could see that transition starting in BBNG2. Like I said before: they’re artists at heart, so it makes sense that their sound is going to mature. It’s still surprising how fast it’s matured, though.
Scott: Oh absolutely; there was maturation between BBNG1 and 2. I just feel as though the progression in sound was less jarring between III and IV.
Nick: I think a huge part of that is the incorporation of Leland Whitty on sax as a full-time member. It gives them a makeup much more suited for more expansive and exploratory material wince Whitty can take the more melodic roles. By the way, can we talk about how great Leland Whitty is on this album? Because he’s fucking fantastic, and now that I know who he is as a player much better it just makes me that much angrier about his guest spot on that fucking Intervals track that I lambasted a while ago.
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Scott: That’s very true; he went from being on a few tracks here and there on BBNG2 and III to most (if not all) tracks on IV. He’s a great player, and a worthy (and necessary, in my opinion) addition to their roster.
Jimmy: IV was really the first album that I really noticed him. Like you said, Scott, he isn’t featured a whole lot before. But he is one hell of a horn player.
Nick: I think he was on a couple of tracks on III, but was announced as a full member for IV.
Scott: He’s definitely taken a place in the spotlight on IV.
BBNG and Heady Fwends
Jimmy: I have to disagree with Scott on that previous point; I felt like the guest features had the spotlight on IV. I mean, close to half the album has guest features, compared to, if I remember correctly, like none before. Except for the Ghostface thing, but I don’t really count that, since it wasn’t a full BBNG album.
Scott: Well I meant he’s taken a place, not necessarily dominated the spotlight. But yeah, as far as I can recall, I don’t think they’ve had any “mainstream” features before now.
Nick: Yeah, but I’d say all of those guest spots (save for “Time Moves Slow,” which we can talk about later but I know we have some thoughts on) really emphasize different strengths of the band and explore some new areas for them that many probably didn’t even know they could do.
Scott: Exactly; none of the guest spots offered truly similar things.
Jimmy: Agreed; it was a cool experience just to hear the chemistry (or sometimes, lack thereof) that the band had with the guests.
Nick: Can we talk about “Confessions Pt. II” here? Because I really want to talk about “Confessions” as the resident Colin Stetson fanboy.
Scott: Oh man, that was one of those tracks that had me as soon as it started. I was so glad they integrated him throughout the entire track and didn’t just relegate him to a solo towards the tail end.
Nick: I mean, to be fair, Stetson is really not a “solo” kind of guy [Editor’s note: I realized afterward how dumb that sounds given that Stetson is most known for his albums as a solo artist. What I meant to say is that he is not known as someone who will play a traditionally-melodic solo as a guest on a song.]. You can’t really get the full effect of what he does in a brief snippet. He’s at his best when he can be blended texturally or with some other kind of counterpoint. And I think that’s how Jimmy feels as well since I know he liked Never were the way she was.
Jimmy: I actually have some opinions on that, haha.
Nick: I want to hear them! I’m dying in anticipation to know if you actually enjoyed a Stetson track.
Jimmy: Yeah, you’ve got my number, Nick. I actually enjoyed this track. Stetson alone is, in my opinion, extremely boring and repetitive. Seeing him interact with other musicians really brings the most out of his playing for me.
Nick: They managed to take his schtick and somehow make it work in the context of a modern funk type of groove, and it’s just incredibly interesting and well-done.
Jimmy: Exactly! Now, if only he could do this more, and I might actually like more of his music. But, that’s not really the subject.
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Jimmy: What about the other guests? What did you guys think of those?
Nick: I like the Mick Jenkins track, which is surprisingly the only straight-up hip-hop track on the album.
Jimmy: I like that track in theory, but not in execution. I felt like his verses and flow didn’t really correlate well to what the band was doing, which is a major pet peeve for me in hip-hop.
Scott: Yeah, I enjoyed Mick’s feature and “Hyssop of Love,” but it really wasn’t a great track. It definitely didn’t live up to anything on The Water[s].
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Scott: For me, Stetson’s feature is tied with Sam Herring for my favorite. Even though I’m not a huge Future Islands fan outside of “Seasons,” Sam is a phenomenal, versatile singer, and I think he elevated “Time Moves Slow” to an even higher level.
Nick: I don’t dislike “Time Moves Slow.” I think it’s a nice track and something I can sing along to. I just don’t know if I love it as a BBNG track when the rest of the album showcases the band’s abilities so much better.
Jimmy: Honestly, I couldn’t stand the Herring feature. It wasn’t having singing that bothered me; it was just his vocals. They didn’t fit the track as well as that last guest. What was her name again?
Nick: Charlotte Day Wilson. And agreed, I like her track much more.
Scott: I can see that. It’s much more of a spotlight for Sam than it is BBNG, and it kind of made them into a backing band. I enjoyed her track too, but not as much as Sam’s. I found Sam’s vocals to be much more unique and enjoyable, though Charlotte did a great job. And as an aside, I was half expecting Sam to rap on the album. He released a hip-hop project with Madlib last year, and he’s also an enormous hip-hop head, which caught me off guard. He did a “What’s in My Bag” dedicated entirely to underground hip-hop.
Jimmy: Wait, really? Hm. Not sure what to think of that. I really haven’t listened to any Future Islands stuff or anything like that, so this was my first taste of Herring (ugh, puns).
Scott: Honestly, nothing I’ve heard from Future Islands has topped “Seasons,” which is a shame since I love Sam’s voice.
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Jimmy: Aside from “Time Moves Slow,” which I didn’t think was horrible, per se, I have no real qualms with the album. Except for the album cover, haha.
Nick: Ah yes, the post-bathhouse photo.
Jimmy: I know it shouldn’t matter that much—the music is more important—but it still irks me to look at it.
Scott: Honestly, I was wicked let down by the Kaytranada feature. I’m a big fan of his debut 99.9%, but it didn’t feel like he was even on the track. The production felt slightly different from BBNG’s other compositions on the album, but it didn’t really resemble anything Kaytranada has done before. It was an unfortunate let down.
Nick: I’m not familiar with Kaytranada, but yeah, it just sounded like a variation of what they did on “Speaking Gently” to me.
Jimmy: I felt like Kaytranada was too much on that track, honestly. It wasn’t enough of an actual collaboration as it was just Kay doing his thing. I didn’t really like 99.9% anyway, though.
Scott: It’s an enjoyable track, but if they hadn’t mentioned he was on it, I would’ve been none the wiser. It just felt like a wasted opportunity. Because he put together so many great ideas on 99.9%, in my opinion.
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Nick: Meanwhile, when the band decided to just do their own thing and really push the jazz on “And That, Too,” “Chompy’s Paradise,” and ESPECIALLY “IV” (my favorite track aside from “Confessions”), I really felt like they hit a new level.
Jimmy: Fuck yeah, man. “IV” was a great track. The opener was also great in my opinion too, with the saxophone going nuts near the end. I love that stuff.
Nick: “IV” is just a brilliant post-bop/early fusion style track. Herbie Hancock would be proud (not surprisingly they’re playing on the same billing here in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks).
Jimmy: Shit, really? I should save up some money and go see that. I loves me some Herbie. Headhunters like singlehandedly got me into jazz.
Scott: “IV” was undeniably great, and it honestly caught me off guard a bit. For me, it was the most straight-up, all caps JAZZ track, and it blew me away.
Nick: Yeah, I had no idea it was coming, and I just drank it all up.
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Nick: Anyway, what strikes me the most about the album is just how many different styles and genres it hits. There are very few tracks that sound at all similar.
Scott: Agreed, Nick, and what’s even more impressive for me is how well it works together as an album with so many different ideas present.
Jimmy: I don’t like to make these predictions so early into the year, but this could honestly be my favorite jazz album of 2016. There was very, VERY little I didn’t like about it.
Nick: Yeah, this has shot up to the top of my jazz list for this year currently. And definitely a top 10 AOTY contender.
Jimmy: Agreed on that AOTY thing; I can see myself spinning this MANY more times as the year goes on.
Scott: Also in agreement; this is a highlight for me within this year’s jazz offerings and 2016 in general
Jimmy: I wasn’t expecting to like it this much, really. I had first heard the Sam Herring feature, and was really bummed out. But I’m glad Nick suggested a JC about this, because it really changed my mind around.
Nick: I had the good fortune of coming in with very few expectations, so I was just enthralled pretty much from front to back.
Jimmy: Don’t you just love when shit like that happens?
Nick: It’s really one of the best feelings out there.
Additional Good Good Not Bad
Nick: Well, seeing as we’re officially a bit more than halfway through the year, what other jazz stuff from this year has really caught your attention? Or is there anything you two are looking forward to from the rest of the year?
Jimmy: Well, Scott and I really liked Niechęć‘s latest self-titled album. But that’s about it in terms of jazz that I’ve really enjoyed this year. I’m hoping some of Kamasi’s bandmates might put something out (I heard a rumor that that might happen), but we’ll see.
Nick: I need to give that Terrace Martin record a good listen. I’ve heard it’s good, and what I did listen to was nice, if not immediately gripping.
Jimmy: I remember giving a listen to it but not really enjoying it. But, hey, it’s probably worth another listen.
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Scott: There have been a handful of great jazz releases so far this year, and a few more I’m looking forward to. Travis Laplante (tenor sax) and Peter Evans (trumpet) released a wild, free improv album called Secret Meeting which I love, and Travis is going to be dropping a second album with his saxophone quartet Battle Trance. they haven’t released any singles yet, but their last album was essentially experimental modern classical.
Nick: Oh shit, I forgot about Battle Trance.
Jimmy: That sounds like some good stuff, though.
Nick: We should talk about them at some point because I want to love them but I’m still not sure if I’m 100% sold on them.
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Scott: I only listened to their debut once, but I enjoyed what I heard. I’ve also been spinning Fire! Orchestra‘s She Sleeps, She Sleeps, which is some pretty sweet avant-garde jazz. Definitely an enjoyable record I’d recommend.
Nick: Personally I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the new album from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. Having seen it performed live in its original multimedia form I can tell you that the both of you will find many interesting things to mine in it. Need to give that Fire! Orchestra album a good listen as well. Hat tip to Dave Tremblay for turning my attention to them though.
Jimmy: Oh man, Dave should be on sometime.
Scott: Nick, did you ever listen to that Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith collab that got a decent amount of buzz earlier this year? I’ve been getting into Wadada a lot, but the teaser they released for the album didn’t do much for me.
Nick: I haven’t!
Scott: It’s not on Spotify, so I haven’t either haha
Nick: Vijay Iyer is someone who I like, but really in only very specific ways haha.
Scott: Anyway, when I’m looking for new jazz releases, I usually I just scroll through Rate Your Music’s jazz charts, but the first half of the year hasn’t been overly full of listings yet. I just checked back now and it seems a lot more populated, so I’ll have to dig more.
Nick: Let us know what you find and maybe we can talk through a few of them sometime soon.
Scott: Well there are certainly a lot of albums we should touch upon in the future. Maybe we should compile a list and then vote on a few to cover on another installment? We can each pick one, maybe?
Jimmy: I’m up for whatever, my man.
Nick: Same. Definitely would like to talk about Battle Trance when that comes out, as well as DJA’s Secret Society.