By Ross Currie
YouTube can be a wasteland of musical ideas put out by self-proclaimed artists seeking to reach the masses with the click of a button, or a platform where true musicianship and artistry can be showcased to unsuspecting eyes and ears. In the case of Toronto jazz trio BadBadNotGood’s rise to fame, the latter was definitely the case. Comprised of Drummer Alex Sowinski, Bassist Chester Hansen and Keyboardist Matthew Hansen, the trio had never intended reaching the fame that would come out of posting a video entitled the Odd Future Sessions Part 1 on YouTube in 2011; which was nothing more than drummer Alex Sowinski’s school project at Humber College’s jazz program in Toronto. Eventually the video went viral, after Odd Future spokesman Tyler, The Creator championed the video, which eventually lead to an actually collaboration with the rapper via YouTube.
Three years on, and two albums of self-released jazz-tinged instrumental hip-hop under their belts (BBNG (2011) and BBNG2 (2012)), along with production credits for RZA’s Man With The Iron Fists, Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris and Danny Brown’s Old, not to mention backing up Frank Ocean at Coachella and performing in Gilles Peterson’s basement; the trio has certainly proven that hard work and musicianship has made them much more than just another Internet sensation.
“In a very serendipitous way, everything just worked out,” says keyboardist Matthew Tavares. “We weren’t even trying to be a band, or do this as a real thing,” adds drummer Alex Sowinski. Just three young kids (Tavares 23, Sowinski 22, Hansen 22) with a shared appreciation for hip-hop, coupled with mature jazz sensibilities and the proficiency to play it effectively is a pretty good indication of a band by most standards.
As much as the band is known for their videos and their steady stream of material, their live show is also a part of their allure. “In a live setting you just want to perform well and represent all the ideas you have in that hour-long set,” says Sowinski. “They both have a different level of comfort,” adds Tavares about the difference between live performance and a studio setting. For many bands, it isn’t easy having the studio polish along with the spontaneity and energy that comes with performing. “You might put in two weeks in the studio and it might really drain you, but then you have this product at the end that you have forever,” says Tavares. So whatever setting it may be, Sowinski confidently adds that “retaining both” is equally important for the trio.
The trio just released their first proper full-length III in May 2014 on Los Angeles based label Innovative Leisure, with nine original compositions touching on everything from post-bop to progressive rock. “[Innovative Leisure] has been really supportive. They’ve wanted to keep their hands away from any creative ideas we’ve had in our music,” says Sowinski, “We’re still able to retain everything we want to write and put out,” he adds. This is a good fit for a band that is used to doing it themselves; as well as having a firm grasp on what they’re comfortable with musically.
“We wanted to put in as much time on the release as physically possible, which we did,” adds Tavares. All three members were actively involved in production and composition for the newest record, recording the album to tape with help from Toronto-based producer and studio-mate Frank Dukes.
For years hip-hop producers like J-Dilla, Madlib, DJ Premier, RZA, Pete Rock and countless others have been preserving jazz traditions in hip-hop through sampling its source material. In turn, preserving the integrity of the genre and opening up fans to explore the diverse tradition that is Jazz. It is a welcome sign that a group of youngsters from suburban Toronto are exploring their own take on both genres, while continuing to subscribe to the spirit of improvisation and creation that is a tenet of both forms of music.
Three years is a short time span for such a young group of musicians to gain the notoriety they’ve gained in both hip-hop and jazz circles. As is the case for most musicians, the need to create something artistically satisfying outweighs the fame and admiration. These young guns prove that hard work and musicality is still the foundation for a solid career in the music industry; and industry that continues to move forward, while still looking to the past as a reference point.