Jazz has high barriers to entry, it seems; it has a reputation for requiring a refined palate, a degree of knowledge, and an upturned nose. In school for jazz in Toronto, that reputation was confirmed for Matthew Tavares, Alexander Sowinski, and Chester Hansen, when their professors criticized the trio’s covers of Odd Future as musically worthless. Others haven’t been so quick to dismiss it, including Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean, and Ghostface Killah.
Since coming together in 2010 as BADBADNOTGOOD, the trio has released several albums—starting with covers that ranged from A Tribe Called Quest to Joy Division and James Blake, and moving to original tunes. Even when moving away from explicit pop music covers, BBNG has continued to explore the fruitful crossover between jazz and more contemporary musical modes, incorporating electronic samples, hip hop beats, and other elements that make a seemingly esoteric genre accessible.
In IV, BBNG continues that exploration but with one major added feature: a fourth member, Leland Whitty, and his saxophone. Often following the structures of jazz instead of those of pop, the album builds on melodic themes instead of easier to grasp verse-chorus patterns. Amid the improvisatory, expressive meanderings, the sax lends focus, sometimes functioning as the main melody in place of human vocals. In the opener, “And This One, Too,” this comes in the form of a loud, euphoric solo midway through that cuts clearly through a mischievous change in the time signature before dissolving into a frenzy (BBNG are nothing if not expectation-defying). In “Chompy’s Paradise,” the sax is quiet and soulful in its straightforward melody, sounding a bit like the warm voice of Charlotte Day Wilson that arrives later in “In Your Eyes.”
Oddly enough—or perhaps not—it’s the songs with Wilson and one other with a vocalist, Sam Herring on “Time Moves Slow,” that feel the most traditional. The traditional jazz instruments, a smattering of bass, keys, guitar, and gentle percussion, are softer on these, and the singers, both with robust, smooth voices with just a hint of grain, adhere to the bluesy origins of jazz singing. The third human voice on IV is less conventional (though more conventional for BBNG). On “Hyssop of Love,” Mick Jenkins raps melodiously, hovering over a woozy synth with fluid flow and satisfying the hints of hip hop—the deep, electronic bass in “Lavender,” the percussion in “Speaking Gently.”
In IV, BBNG has honed their unique voice into something sharp, rich, and colorful. On the cover of IV, the young quartet stands together wearing white towels around their waists. It’s goofy; they squint in the bright sunlight with their arms around each other, one smiling and the others acting unconvincingly stoic. Above all, though, it is confident. A long way from their panel of disparaging professors, they have proven that you don’t need to be too serious to be, well, seriously good.