Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from National Public Radio
Hello, fans of the Toronto band BADBADNOTGOOD. Thanks for stopping by, truly. I’m delighted that somebody turned you on to the joys of improvised instrumental music; as you can see, it’s an experience like none other.
The three young band members — “No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album,” their new mixtape claims — create music that could theoretically be called “jazz,” but you probably heard about them from a friend or media outlet for whom jazz isn’t a top priority. (In fact, the consensus among professional jazz musicians and journalists seems to be notably against them, and further remarks still trickle in.) Their repertoire merges jazz training with their musical milieu: covers of songs by au courant musicians, extrapolations upon hip-hop beats and a few original compositions too.
BBNG is currently on a short U.S. tour, including a New York City stop and a gig backing singer Frank Ocean at Coachella. That’s led to another wave of press about the band’s connection to the music of today. Being a jazz journalist, I’d like to point out that this connection essentially describes the entire history of jazz: Musicians have always adapted pop music of the age to their own ends. So if you’re into what BBNG is doing, here are five other bands who think similarly, but aren’t as well-known outside the jazz world. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve picked only trios of keyboards, bass and drums — just like BADBADNOTGOOD itself.
So if they’re so great and attuned to the present moment, why aren’t these bands I’ve discussed — with the exception of Robert Glasper’s — attaining the buzz that BBNG is? Part of it has to do with the inflammatory nature of BBNG’s public comments toward jazz education and jazz tradition in certain recent interviews. That makes it easy for journalists who don’t know much about current jazz (one Vice magazine interviewer wrote that “jazz blows” in the first sentence of her lede) to contrast this band to an incompletely-portrayed establishment. Meanwhile, musicians whose careers have benefited from immersion within the jazz community — even those who eventually make art their mentors may not approve of — are much less likely to spurn their peers, elders and teachers.
Another part has to do with BBNG’s savvy in online self-promotion. The band has released two free mixtapes, two free live recordings, a Tumblr, a Twitter feed and several YouTube videos of their covers, all with elegant graphic design and CPTL LTTR branding and aesthetic in-jokes. (Pig mask, anyone?) Jazz PR representation, on balance, has failed to execute this sort of 21st century grassroots promotional activity. A general lack of institutional wherewithal accounts for some of this. More importantly, making music videos and free studio recordings requires financial resources that professional musicians and record companies aren’t willing to risk. (This is especially true for cover songs, which require copyright clearances to record legally.) Record companies don’t expect to recoup their investments on most jazz artists, whose track record of commercial success is not stellar. And professional musicians aren’t as apt to self-promote for free as BBNG is: They have careers and often families, and expect to be paid for their services, not unreasonably.
I do admire BADBADNOTGOOD for making original music that feels personal to its members, and articulating its connection with the zeitgeist. Frustrated by a flat-footed prevailing order that wasn’t comprehending its ideas, the band took its message directly to fans. That’s a lesson in hustle many in jazz might learn from.
But I also believe that plenty of astounding bands have a similar outlook when it comes to creativity. All of those mentioned here have more years of study and bandstand experience under their belts, which translates to greater depth of creative possibility. There are many more, too: Fellow piano trios The Bad Plus, the Brad Mehldau Trio, Medeski Martin and Wood or Jason Moran and the Bandwagon have been celebrated for their pop music connections for over a decade now.
The fact that you haven’t heard much about these bands is a problem the jazz community ought to address. But in the correct light, their art ought to speak for itself.