Talkin’ All That Jazz With BadBadNotGood

Broadening horizons beyond the internet and Jazz

I’m sat with BadBadNotGood in their dressing room, tucked away on a top floor of Electric Brixton; two black two seat sofas are pushed up next to each other and take up most of the space in a room an estate agent would no doubt call ‘cosy’. It’s hardly the place you’d expect to find a jazz quartet known widely for their love of Hip-Hop music. Since their inception around 2010, when the band featured only three members, they were uploading Odd Future covers to YouTube. Now “So many people are blowing up all over the internet because of a single or things like that,” the band’s drummer, Alex Sowinski tells me.

In the years since the BadBadNotGood’s formation and subsequent rise to prominence they have collaborated with a who’s who of North American Hip-Hop’s most forward thinking and credible voices: Tyler, the creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Kaytranada and Ghostface Killah are all names that are counted as friends and collaborators by the group, it’s led people in some quarters to fete BBNG to such an extent you could be forgiven for thinking they’re solely responsible for the resurrection of an entire genre.

“That’s very new to the past like 10 years of making music – maybe even more, but like since internet releases and mixtapes and all these things have become so apparent, um, and I think, just, the information being passed around can go so fast; so quickly and it’s kind of like how we started too ‘cause we just started putting shit up on YouTube just for fun really.”

I had started our conversation by asking the boys what they thought was responsible for the resurgence in popularity of Jazz music in recent years but like all good hosts, they started by offering me whisky, fruit and tea as they got settled in before we began properly. Alex, no longer hidden by animal masks but still carrying a vague air of mischief that reminds me of Reece from Malcolm in the Middle, continues to explain “I think when you hear, like, a saxophone solo in the background of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ or something like that it’s such a unique sound. And for this huge anthem that has like 808’s in the production and is such a good feeling – obviously the message is incredible too – but like, you don’t really hear that a lot and that kind of like, almost, feeling of complementary expression in a huge Rap hit, so I think, kind of like, you’re hearing something you don’t normally hear maybe.”

The truth is definitely much more of a combination of factors Alex continues to explain, “we’re just happy to be playing jazz at this moment. I think [the resurgence in Jazz] is a collective feeling amongst a lot of different music and, kind of, across different parts of the world. I think it’s ‘cause of Rap music and production and things that, that kind of blend together a lot. And a lot of currently, like, you know, just all these young producers and stuff having solos – Kendrick Lamar. All these different feelings of musicianship kind of coming together and crossing over in so many paths, then opening people’s ears to actually just checking out those, maybe assisting, feelings of all these collaborations. I think over the years that’s been a big thing, people getting a lot more into live production with musicians and stuff like that and I think a large – from what I see – is Hip-Hop and Rap related for sure because it’s been opening the doors to hearing Kamasi Washington and the [Flying Lotus label] Brainfeeder family.”

“Everyone’s broadening their horizons in terms of a lot of different areas of their life and music is one of those things” – Chester

Chester Hansen, the band’s bass guitar player sits next to Alex on the sofa to my left. He has the kind of longish brown hair that one would associate with a guitar player, with a cup of tea in front of him, he pauses for a moment before he takes up the point next, “yeah, no I totally agree and I also think it’s kind of reflective of just how a lot of younger people are hopefully – I mean in an ideal world, everyone’s broadening their horizons in terms of a lot of different areas of their life and music is one of those things, especially ‘cause of the internet. Like, now we have a generation that’s grown up with the internet and can use it to find anything – including every type of music that they would ever want to, so it’s really easy if you hear one of Kendrick’s songs with someone on it who’s a jazz musician and then you look them up, check out their records too and it’s pretty sweet”

Back in September, I tell the boys, Eddie Otchere spoke with Gregory Porter about the way in which radio has previously interfered with music. Casting certain elements aside and labelling them not ‘radio friendly’ Gregory had commented saying that, “Music, the family of music, you wasn’t supposed to separate the cousin from the brother, from the daddy, you ain’t supposed to do that, it’s one family. Now I understand for categorisation I understand, but for the listener, and for the proper listener, the soulful listener, they put on Marvin Gaye, then they put on Miles, that’s the way I listen to music. And then they’ll put on some hip hop and it’s ok and it’s not wrong. But somehow it’s fantastically wrong in radio and television. It doesn’t make sense. I tend to think that in the UK in terms of diversity of music, that’s played, it’s WIDE.”

I ask the band about this concept of music being a spectrum away from traditional radio; where the artists and listeners alike continually float along crossing the blurred lines at will in search of music that resonates.

“Finding your voice, you have a lot of ideas to try until you find your voice.” – Alex

The band’s alternative keyboard player ‘Jazzy’ Jimmy – presently touring with the group in place of Matt Tavares, while Matt attends to a personal situation back home – takes the reigns with this one; “I mean, the spectrum is just like the implication of time, right? That time exists in the music, which it does historically, but I guess when you’re actually hearing it, it’s kind of genreless and I try to keep that mindset all the time, and I’m sure you guys do too” he says gesturing to the rest of the band in the room, “I think Jazz, the nature of Jazz is that in it’s definition, its just so open so you can sort of do anything… now it’s more diverse of course, but maybe back in the Bebop era, the big band era or whatever was just, very specifically one sort of type of vocabulary which was a very specific sound. Now it’s just so diverse it’s almost impossible to even talk about because it’s so whatever you know? It’s so broad. But, yeah, I think it’s really important to keep in mind historically how Jazz has developed and how all music has developed and how some music has, diverged at certain points in time and how that affects our music.”

Alex continues the point “I think we kind of do those things, just going back to listening to albums, you know what I mean? Like you can listen to zillions of albums that came out in the 60’s and hear the progression of people soloing then, their ideas – their arrangement ideas, how they would use instrumentation within groups. Finding your voice, you have a lot of ideas to try until you find your voice.”

We talk a bit about listeners personally pursuing new music in addition to what they’re already into before I ask them more broadly, now that the Hip-Hop crossovers have been done; what kind of genre blending could be next? As a lover of A Guy Called Gerald, Kerri Chandler, Roger Sanchez and Nile Rodgers I say I’d love to hear a BBNG Jazz meets Chicago House via Disco medley. I ask where an endeavour like that would start? Would they feel confident or even interested enough to ever pursue anything heavily influenced by Dance music? Jazzy Jimmy, as he insists I call him, brings a philosophical tone to the conversation, “It’s everything you know. Like, you only use the words you have learned in your own personal head, you know? Same thing goes for music. You use the vocabulary you have in your head and if you have all the vocabulary then great, you get to use it and still be called a Jazz musician.”

“Work a lot with Kaytranada.” Leland Whitty offers for the first time, “He has a lot of those influences and characteristics in his sound and stuff, and he brings it out in us at times. We’re always hoping and planning to work together as much as possible.” 2016 saw the band welcome Leland officially as their fourth member. Up until this point he has listened as the conversation flowed around the room; sometimes smiling, often thoughtful, he stands to the right of Jazzy Jimmy, aptly completing the small circle we’ve formed in the room.

A multi-instrumentalist, I watched first hand later that evening as Leland flitted from tenor Saxophone, to clarinet to flute, to tambourine standing barefooted front and centre of the stage while incense burned and wafted about the crowd – performing that same beguiling saxophone solo in ‘confesssions’ that first drew me into their sound. But for now, in the confines of the dressing room he was giving nothing away. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

“You always need the energy of someone to help you – to show you how that music kind of functions” – Alex

Chester carries the thread of conversation on next, “Just, yeah from an all around standpoint, like, Chic are amazing. Everything Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards and their collective played, I was like ‘damn I didn’t know they produced that’ like the Bowie stuff, Diana Ross – it’s so crazy. But yeah, I guess – when we have been making stuff, I don’t know if we’ve – we haven’t tried to make a concise project that has a dance-y, Disco influence but that I can see would be really, really fun – just cause it’s so much fun to play.” Before Alex ties it up, “you always need the energy of someone to help you – to show you how that music kind of functions, because the way we make music is coming from a lot of energy of how other music functions. You know what I mean? And we haven’t actually pursued the Disco feeling because, I guess, a lot of other things come more naturally.”

As our time comes to an end, we talk about the often noted parallels in culture between Canada and London. About their favourite curry house which Alex is quick to establish is “super, super fire, all the waiters have headsets and it’s just like, all the naan,” before we swing back to music. I ask them to tell me about how they put emotion into their instrumentation; whether ‘playing sad’ is a real thing and Jazzy Jimmy explains, “oh yeah, it’s absolutely a thing, the same way, yeah it’s 100% a thing. It’s as much of a thing as if you wake up and you can’t control how you feel. Like, you might feel happy that day, or you might be sad, or confused, or low”  I’m taken intrigued by the idea of waking up, feeling low, and being able to play nothing but melancholy notes. so I ask if I’m getting it and Jazzy Jimmy reassures me, “totally. Oh yeah, for sure. It’s not a myth or anything.”

Alex comes in next and I’ve come to understand the natural pattern the guys share, like everything they do with music, there are no rigid boundaries, everything can be pushed and explored, they often take the lead from one another because they so obviously trust each other. “Obviously the most fun environment is when everyone is feeling really happy and good but when, say, someone might be feeling down, there becomes this almost intimate comfort that everyone tries to apply to help someone, you know, be comfortable. Because also you’re on tour and you’re performing so it’s hard; you’re feeling crazy, you can’t  figure out where your head’s at, but you’re going to be playing in front of people and performing and you want to do a good job. So it becomes this whole thing where the band kind of shifts where everyone needs to go and tries to make this comfort but not too hands on. So say, you might have this solo that’s actually really beautiful because you’re not really feeling good that day.”

Finally Chester adds his take, “Totally. That’s kind of what playing together is like, I don’t know, no matter what kind of day you’re having if you get together with your boys, friends, your girls, whatever, and play something – just playing any kind of music, in any context, it’s a form of expressing yourself, so that I think, can only help”