Merge jazz school training with a rap sensibility and you get a song entitled AssMilk, by L.A. rap provocateurs Odd Future, transcribed as sheet music. Upload the performance to YouTube and it's viral gold.
In the wrong hands, the combo of jazz and rap, two seemingly disparate ideas, could go two ways: tight-assed and academic or precious and ironic. But with a little talent, bravado and just enough boredom, BADBADNOTGOOD, one of the city's most exciting young bands, pulled it off.
"We're the first jazz band that's had people moshing at shows," says drummer Alex Sowinski, 20, referring to BBNG's recent raucous parties in Toronto and Montreal.
The band, which also includes keyboardist Matt Tavares, 21, and bassist Chester Hansen, 19, didn't set out to change anything when they met at Humber College; it was about having fun. And when they take their trio set-up and renegade ethos to a live setting, the results are surreal. They want to get Hansen plugged in wirelessly so he can crowd-surf. They also want bloody faces in the crowd and pretty girls dancing onstage. Like if Fucked Up collaborated with Waka Flocka Flame, backed by the Roots.
But back to AssMilk. It was Hansen's Nikes, a footwear anomaly in a sea of jazz student boat shoes, that caught Sowinski's attention. In another class - ear training, they recall - Sowinski linked with fellow outlier Tavares over a mutual appreciation of digital classicist James Blake and meme-rapper Lil B. A few loose, convivial jam sessions later and, this time last year, that Odd Future remake was part of a performance test piece for a panel of jazz performance instructors.
"The comments were like, ‘I didn't find anything of musical value in this performance,'" says Sowinski, giddy with hindsight, sitting with his cohorts in Queen West's Pho Phuong. "And then we put the exact same thing on the internet...."
After just a day on YouTube, the eight-minute-plus Odd Future Sessions Part 1 went viral.
"This Is Fucking Sick! Dave Brubeck Trio Swag," tweeted Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future's savant bellwether and a demigod to adolescents around the world.
A medley of au courant hip-hop compositions that includes the plinking double-time keys of producer Bangladesh's gauzy Lemonade, the video captured BBNG's protean instincts for collapsing genres. (Live, Lemonade is a deranged bebop fugue, making dramatic use of tempo).
Impatient and arch, heavy on the blue notes, with occasional improvised accompaniment performed on half-chugged 40 oz. bottles, their sound is a musical neologism, something so new it has yet to be defined. It's a challenge to audiences at a time when every new trick is neatly labelled post- this or future that. Corporeally it's jazz, but spiritually it's hip-hop.
Six months and a tiny shoulder-to-shoulder Dundas West debut show later, Tyler - who appeared on the covers of Billboard and SPIN in 2011 - dropped by Sowinski's west-end basement to jam just before Odd Future's second sold-out Toronto date. A video documents a real moment for both: Tyler's brilliance, and full-circle idol-worship validation for BBNG.
They had no intention of being a band - a friend came up with the name and it stuck - but we, the internet, demanded it.
Last November BBNG opened for the righteous jazz-funk maverick Roy Ayers, stunning his audience in the process. But the ultimate big-up came in January when they travelled to London, UK, to play BBC personality Giles Peterson's Worldwide Awards alongside contemporary genre innovators like SBTRKT and Jamie XX.
"I was made aware of their [Odd Future Sessions Part 2] Goblin Medley [and] it blew my mind," Peterson, a sonic prophet, writes in an email. "It's rare that jazz musicians get the hip-hop thing right, apart from Q-Tip, Questlove, Steve Coleman and Robert Glasper. These guys are now in the top league!"
Back at the pho spot, the "top-league" musicians seem more like some kids you'd see on the bus. They talk over each other, sometimes with their mouths full, often detouring between questions into a salvo of hilarious non sequiturs. Hansen, the quietest, reveals that as a teenage beatmaker he dreamt of forming a rap group called H Crew ("for Hansen") with his brothers.
Tavares, a multi-instrumentalist with no formal piano training, played in punk bands and obsessively recorded covers of Duran Duran and Talking Heads.
Affable smartass Sowinski stretches his arm to the street, a figurative sweep of the city bars where he's played "probably over 400 shows" drumming with high school bands.
Devout music nerdery led them to Humber jazz after high school, where they eventually felt too cloistered.
"[It's] a different world. No one knows what Pitchfork Music is," explains Tavares about the fusty codes inside jazz's breeding grounds. "People know Downbeat Magazine, and they know what, like, John Coltrane's solo on Giant Steps (Alternate Take) sounds like," he scoffs.
Jazz, a mutable music born out of black resistance, made psychedelic intrusions into the dominance of Western classical modalities, rhythms and sensibilities, but it's ossified over time. Schools churn out prodigies with genius skills and predictable reflexes.
"You have to transcribe Charlie Parker and learn the Omnibook, and that's kind of bullshit because then everyone plays what Parker plays," explains Sowinski. "It's important to learn the language, but whether you use it is your own call."
That's not impudence, but a canny insight into institutional insularity, and it gives rise to a totally apropos coming-of-age worry about getting paid.
"You spend four precious years doing whatever you want because you're in school, just practising your scales, when you should be practising what to do after," Tavares opines.
"Most graduates are super-, super-good at playing traditional jazz," adds Hansen. "[We're] trying to bring that to a band and a creative basis instead of individual technical ability."
Covers make up much of BBNG's free-released catalogue (a mixtape and two live recordings, including London), but the next record, out in early April, is half original material. BADBADNOTGOOD2 was recorded in late February during an espresso-fuelled overnight at east-end studio Revolution Recording. ("It's where Rush recorded," gushes Tavares.)
"We wanted to tie the roots of what we've been doing with the way we're expanding and show some growth," says Sowinski.
So on top of creating ornate, boom-bap-inflected originals and teasing out helical refrains from Kanye West's Flashing Lights and James Blake's take on Feist's Limit To Your Love, they've recorded a My Bloody Valentine cover. Also dubstep?
"But it's not going to sound like dubstep!" Hansen insists, pointing instead to the beat-scene innovators they met in London, Thundercat and Kutmah.
This sparks a debate over an early inspiration, crossover jazz pianist Robert Glasper, who's collaborated with artists like Mos Def and Bilal.
"Fuck Robert Glasper," laughs Tavares, half-seriously. "He's doing well in jazz, but he's into this ‘real hip-hop, fuck Lil Wayne' type thing. He's stuck in 1990. The key to making good music is having an open mind."
Covering Smells Like Teen Spirit with vocoder'd vocals doesn't do jazz any favours, adds Sowinski as we discuss Glasper's already acclaimed February release, Black Radio. "I'm pretty sure if Kurt Cobain were alive, he'd be like, ‘This is fucking horrible.'"
Hansen puts it best: "It just doesn't have any balls."
One artist with cojones, they concur, is Polaris Prize-nominated bass saxophone freaker Colin Stetson. It's the collaboration they want most, reveals Hansen. "He's changing music," adds Sowinski reverently. "He's doing the coolest thing in the world."
Actually, Stetson, who tours with Bon Iver and played on Feist's latest record, is BBNG's improbable twin: a technical specialist not content with sessioning, elbowing into the pop consciousness instead.
Though it's not official-official, next month BBNG fly out to play Coachella, where they're hoping to gig with a marquee act or two. And they're going to raze this year's CMF, playing a perfectly curated showcase with fellow Canadian beat impurists Lunice and Zodiac.
As for music school, the band no longer finds it necessary. Hansen and Tavares withdrew in February, while Sowinski's still enrolled, "but only for the dental plan."