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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

BadBadNotGood: Odd Future collaborations do not equal groundbreaking jazz

Posted By on 05.08.12 at 12:29 PM

BadBadNotGood
  • BadBadNotGood
In late March a young Toronto trio called BadBadNotGood stirred up some jazz-world Internet controversy thanks to a Now Toronto feature filled with the sort of button-pushing comments that are wholly to be expected from kids in their late teens. Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen was the first to dig into the story and reply in detail, and in no time it blew up. Among other things, BadBadNotGood dismissed pianist Robert Glasper for drawing inspiration from hip-hop that was too old, ripped on jazz educators for requiring students to transcribe Charlie Parker solos, and excoriated the jazz community in general for its lack of familiarity with Pitchfork. The story's author, Anupa Mistry, offers the fact that influential British DJ Gilles Peterson and Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator both love BBNG as proof of the group's genius—in other words, she buys into the trio's somewhat inflated picture of itself hook, line, and sinker. Her claim that jazz has "ossified over time" would still sound like nonsense to me, even if she seemed to know the first thing about contemporary jazz—she's clearly more comfortable talking about hip-hop. And in her story she seems happy to grant the kids in BadBadNotGood the rhetorical backup they need to write off critics of their music as clueless codgers.

Why bring this up now? Because the group makes its local debut on Wednesday night at the Empty Bottle.

When this all went down I didn't pay it much attention—I hadn't heard of BadBadNotGood before, and when Tyler, the Creator tweets, "This Is Fucking Sick! Dave Brubeck Trio Swag," I don't exactly sit up and take notice. But in advance of Wednesday's show, I decided to check out their music and revisit the online furor. The group's latest album, BBNG2 (available as a free download), has little connection to what most people would consider jazz, though the instrumentation matches that of a traditional piano trio—piano, bass, and drums. Drummer Alex Sowinski, who likes to wear a pig mask when he plays, lays down plenty of complex, heavy-handed patterns, but more than anything BBNG sound like they're swiping the occasional grandiloquent moments from the Bad Plus records, exaggerating them, and then overloading them with breakbeats till they nearly collapse.

They also borrow the Bad Plus's former practice of remaking familiar pop and rock songs, except BBNG never bother with anything as quaint as Rush or Abba. BBNG2 includes a version of Feist's "Limit to Your Love," though they're clearly inspired by the James Blake version rather than the original (you can check it out below), as well covers of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights," Odd Future's "Earl," and Tyler, the Creator's "Bastard." Recently BadBadNotGood collaborated with Tyler, and you can see video of that below.

After listening to the album a couple of times, I can't really say what the big deal is. The only people who'd call this "jazz," much less imagine that it has the potential to revitalize an allegedly ossified genre, are people who never listen to jazz—or who think that old Squarepusher records represent its recent high-water mark. It's unsophisticated, inflexible, and features almost no meaningful improvisation—as far as I'm concerned, improvisation is the most crucial facet of jazz. Sowinski plays a lot of crazy beats, but he never sounds loose or especially buoyant—and malleable rhythms are another hugely important aspect of the music. BBNG2 is ersatz jazz for hip-hop heads, which is fine—there's nothing wrong with the music, except that people have been using it as a cudgel to beat up on actual jazz. And BadBadNotGood are certainly free to criticize jazz, or anything else—but that doesn't mean there's a good reason to give a fuck about the stupid shit they say.

BadBadNotGood, "Limit to Your Love"

Today's playlist:

Erkki Kurenniemi, Äänityksiä/Recordings 1963-1973 (Love)
Chris McGregor Trio, Our Prayer (Fledg’ling)
Friedrich Cerha, Bruchstück, Geträumt/Neun Bagatellen/Instants (Kairos)
Kandia Kouyate, Ngara (Syllart)
Dale Hawkins, Oh! Susie-Q: The Best of Dale Hawkins (MCA/Chess)

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