Friday, July 19, 2019
It was nearly 8:30 on a Tuesday night in late September, and the sold-out crowd at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was restless. With confirmed (Bilal, Sa-Ra Creative Partners) and unbilled (George Clinton, Kamasi Washington, the Gaslamp Killer) acts slated for the stage, the evening was shaping up to be a long but momentous one. British deejay Gilles Peterson had selected the bill and violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, one of the most in-demand arrangers and composers of the tight-knit L.A. beat scene, was at the helm of a 13-piece jazz orchestra. The Canadian quartet BadBadNotGood—Leland Whitty on saxophones, guitar, violin and vibraphone; keyboardist Matty Tavares, subbed out for the night; Chester Hansen on bass; Alexander Sowinski on drums—was tasked with opening the show.
Whitty, a recent fulltime addition to the band, strode out in his best spring-break wardrobe and began to blow the Norah Jones hit “Don’t Know Why” on his tenor. The group played it slow and straight without solos, a suitable cruise-ship stroll. When the song was over, the crowd clapped politely, a little confused but fairly accepting that these four young men were going to sling some cheese until the main acts were ready. Instead they delivered a beating, unleashing blazing saxophone solos and a road-tested rhythmic ferocity on the 1,600-strong audience. Between tunes, Sowinski, wearing a T-shirt promoting a mythical Cubist basketball team called the Picasso Bulls, offered frenetic banter. By the end of the set, people were hollering at the stage for more. BBNG had blown a few minds and befuddled a few others. The parade of stars could now proceed until the early morning.
The oldest member of BBNG was 11 when “Don’t Know Why” hit the airwaves in 2002. The band found its own left-field success five years ago through a viral video, a trio recording of a handful of hip-hop tunes—including Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” and Tyler, the Creator’s “AssMilk”—filmed in a classroom at Toronto’s Humber College, which all four current members attended. This is not how they generally tell you to achieve success in jazz school.
“In its early days, [Humber College] was the only place in Canada that offered jazz education—albeit a three-year diploma, which did not transfer as college credit—but tons of excellent young musicians came here because of the top-notch faculty,” noted Denny Christianson, Humber’s director of music. But no one in BadBadNotGood has made it to graduation yet. Instead, as the band’s lore presents it, the project recorded by Tavares, Hansen and Sowinski was deemed by their instructors to have “no musical value.” Thus, they posted it online for those outside of academia to critique.
The video, titled “The Odd Future Sessions Part 1,” consists of shaky, high-contrast black-and-white footage, and the performance is brash, driven by Tavares’ hammering right hand. The pianist wears shorts and a T-shirt; Hansen has his hoodie up; Sowinski plays in a pig mask. BBNG from its inception has embraced its role as jazz brats—a subspecies of the critic Nate Chinen’s whooping jazzbros—displaying minimal interest in the restraints of tradition and seeking something a little more blunt and often goofily sophomoric.
“I am sure I speak for the Humber music community when I say that we are happy for their success,” Christianson said. “As to the ‘no musical value,’ I would suggest that this was the assessment of one person, and should be taken into the context that [throughout] the history of all natures of art there have been countless examples of disagreement of opinions. As we know, the group has already proven to themselves that their music has a solid fan base. I am happy for them and wish them every measure of success.”
“Meet great people, have fun, do creative shit.” Sowinski outlined his philosophy while seated on a couch in the warehouse headquarters of Innovative Leisure, the Los Angeles-based record label that BBNG calls home. It was the day before the Ace Hotel show and the band was between rehearsal and tacos.
Hansen expanded upon that ethos by pointing out what has always worked for the band. “The first time we ever recorded ourselves, and the third time we ever jammed, was our first YouTube video, and [Tyler, the Creator] ended up checking it out and posting about it. Everything we did after that was just, ‘Oh, I guess some people are into this and it’s really fun. Let’s keep jamming.’ Everything we do is something we enjoy a good time.
Shortly after the video was posted, Tyler arrived in Toronto on tour, and stopped by Sowinski’s parents’ house to collaborate with the band on an impromptu jam. In it, BBNG lays down a steady groove as Tyler’s raps become increasingly menacing and transgressive, eliciting a “Did he just say that?” response from the average listener. “I thought it was hilarious,” Sowinski recalled. “You just kind of enjoy what’s going on. I was pretty excited to just be playing with a rapper in my basement.”
Tyler, the Creator is the leader and cofounder of Odd Future, the Los Angeles-based alternative hip-hop collective whose explosive popularity helped expose BBNG to a world of young fans averse to categories of genre, race or fashion. In 2012, BBNG served as a house band for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which included backing R&B singer-songwriter Frank Ocean, an Odd Future member, in the midst of his breakout. Later that year the group contributed to the soundtrack for the flamboyant martial-arts film The Man With the Iron Fists, directed by Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA. Within months of the “Odd Future” upload, these middle-class college undergrads from Canada were one of the most in-demand live bands in hip-hop.
The Montreal International Jazz Festival featured more than 800 acts in the summer of 2015, but acclaimed Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah’s show at the Métropolis theater, with BBNG backing, drew perhaps the most youthful crowd of the fest. Funnily enough, the show, in support of the three-years-in-the-making collaboration Sour Soul, almost didn’t happen. Ghostface was held up at the airport, having flown in from Europe that afternoon. BBNG was fully assembled and ready to take on the house. In cinematic fashion, Ghostface showed up late but ready, wrapped in an oversized Phillies jacket, and a full set was delivered to the raucous crowd. Though BBNG had very little room for improvisation within the structure of the tunes, the players did showcase their ability to convincingly recreate riffs by the likes of Barry White and Isaac Hayes. Any limitations they faced were overcome with sheer energy.
But from the beginning BBNG has cut a wider swath stylistically than its hip-hop associations might imply. The band occupies a space shared between improvisation, electronic dance music, mosh pits and cocktail hour; among the covers on its first two studio releases is material by Flying Lotus, Joy Division, Feist and My Bloody Valentine. The band’s 2014 release, III, was its final album as a trio and first with all original compositions. More piano-focused, the album evokes ’70s groove-jazz recordings that embraced electric bass, a stronger backbeat and the crispness of pop production. “Kaleidoscope” is a grungy womp with Sowinski cutting loose on the toms, while “Hedron” is a slow-burner highlighting Hansen’s patient basslines. “Confessions” is Whitty’s spotlight, the band minimally supporting the then-guest saxophonist’s motif before he is free to fly around Hansen; it’s a standout track and a glimpse of the future. “Everyone is doing more things individually, which helps gives us fresh perspectives,” Sowinski said. “Pursue different lanes and try to connect. Now with this love of songwriting, we’re pushing it further. We’re starting to explore tons of different avenues.”
On the latest release, IV, BBNG is officially a quartet. The addition of Whitty on horns and strings broadens the range of influences considerably, and gives the band a dominant solo voice that it uses extensively. Tunes like “Speaking Gently” and “IV” feature screaming tenor solos, reminiscent of CTI-era burners from Joe Henderson and Joe Farrell. The latter tune closes with Whitty working through baroque lines in even, repetitive clips. It is hypnotic and powerful, a lulling acrobatic riff. But it didn’t come easy.
BBNG was deep into crafting IV before deciding to scrap everything. With help from producer Frank Dukes, the band built a studio in Toronto, starting from scratch on their home turf and recording their featured artists in-house as they passed through town. “I think there were lots of reasons we weren’t happy,” Whitty said. “We rented a studio for a few days but everything we used for the album was recorded in our studio. We knew that we needed to take some more steps, to dive in and find the concept of the record.”
The album boasts a considerably more homed-in attack with a focus on songcraft, bouncing between instrumental jams and stellar guest appearances from the likes of Future Islands’ Sam Herring, rapper Mick Jenkins, vocalist Charlotte Day Wilson and saxophonist Colin Stetson. Aside from the twinkling landscapes of Nintendo’s resident composer Koji Kondo and Vangelis, the band cited the work of numerous Brazilian artists of the 1970s for inspiring this latest direction, in particular composers Arthur Verocai and Erasmo Carlos. “Brazilian jazz can be very complex but so smooth and fearless,” Sowinski said. “Those signature feelings and ideas harmonically are so unique and beautiful. That was a big inspiration. We found such a love of songwriting, even though we don’t sing.”
For their parts, Herring and Wilson dig deep into a Philly-soul spirit on “Time Moves Slow” and “In Your Eyes,” respectively. Herring’s guest spot in particular is a welcome display of restraint that lets the ballad simmer into seduction. Wilson’s performance hangs her vibrato over fluttering flutes and a choir of female voices indebted to the Fifth Dimension. Whitty’s guitar work adds some laidback flair on both. On “Chompy’s Paradise,” his multiple woodwinds hover over the rhythm section’s clip-clop crawl, summoning up the grandiose production of the Philadelphia sound, and the band transforms into CopacaBadBad on the sand-swept “Cashmere.” It’s a syrupy dessert to close out the album, sweet beyond expectations.
The most forceful guest is Colin Stetson, who conjures a hive of aggravated bees on his bass saxophone. “We had a two-day session with Colin, and a lot of that time was spent basically freeform jamming all in the same room. ‘Confessions Pt. II’ came from one of those jams,” Hansen said, referring to a pummeling disco workout.
“They have a stellar work ethic and they’re really no nonsense about it all,” Stetson wrote in an email. “Obviously, whenever younger musicians attain heights of recognition, the go-to headline is always how ‘gifted’ they all must be, but honestly, ‘gifts’ or no, the folks who are successful tend to be the ones who are working harder than everyone else, and this is especially true for these guys. In and out of the studio, they’re in it with a love and appreciation for the music, and the ambition to see it through.”
Less than a week after the Los Angeles gig, BBNG opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the 17,000-seat Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain. Later that month, Snoop Dogg sampled “Lavender,” a collaboration with producer Kaytranada from IV. Not bad, not bad.
Donny McCaslin at Monterey Jazz Festival, 2018: Photo by Craig Lovell
Around 10:30 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday, September 22, 2018, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band—vocalist/guitarist Jeff Taylor, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Zach Danziger—walked onstage at the Monterey Jazz Festival. They opened their headlining set with an original song, “What About the Body,” sung by Taylor. McCaslin started the tune on his effects-laden horn, stuttering a chunky riff before the rest of the band joined with a heavy rock beat. And then the saxophonist, who has been a regular on the Monterey stage for the past three-and-a-half decades, did something he has never done before in all those appearances: He sang.
For the song’s chorus, McCaslin stepped up to the second microphone, his right hand covering his ear to aid in the precision of his harmonies. “Left wing, right wing, what about the body?” he hollered with a big smile on his face.
“It’s something I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing, really, but the music called for it and I’m just going all in,” he said after the set. “A lot of the songs are not in the most comfortable range for me, especially as I’m singing harmony parts. It’s in my falsetto.”
McCaslin had sung onstage for the first time only a few months earlier. “I knew it was coming as these songs were taking shape. It wasn’t clear if it would be me or other people in the band, but as the music developed and it got clearer not only on the recording but as I started thinking about the live show, I knew it had to happen. And I was the person who had to be involved in executing it.”
“Going all in” is the perfect way to describe McCaslin’s current musical approach. More than two years past the release of his watershed collaboration with David Bowie on the latter’s final album, Blackstar, the saxophonist is hell-bent on exploring the manifold possibilities within his own sound. On his latest release, Blow, he drapes his horn in rough digital textures and a heady, uncompromising mix of electronica, jazz, and fist-pumping rock.
“I’m in a different place,” McCaslin cheerfully announced at one point during the middle of his Monterey set. “Hang with me.”
The next morning, McCaslin, a head taller than everyone around him, was sitting in the shade off of a sand trap abutting the festival hotel and reflecting on the importance of Monterey in his life. He was raised a short, peaceful drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from the Monterey Fairgrounds, in Santa Cruz, Calif. “At 14, my high school won a statewide competition,” he recalled. The prize was a chance to play at the festival. “It was a big deal to me as a kid. Monterey is so immense. Being able to listen to Elvin Jones play, and Dizzy Gillespie. It was magical.”
McCaslin spent every year of high school at the festival, attending lectures and a weeklong intensive immersion camp that featured musicians like Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Martial Solal, and James Moody. In the late 1980s, he emerged as a mature voice on the horn, confident and knowledgeable about the rich history of jazz saxophone. Some of that poise may have been inherited from his father, Don Sr., who was a fixture of Santa Cruz nightlife throughout his son’s childhood. (Now in his nineties, Don Sr. is still playing around town.) But a lot of it came from his Monterey experiences. Over the following decades, McCaslin would share the festival stage with Maria Schneider, Danilo Pérez, and Kyle Eastwood, among many others.
Then along came Bowie. On a tip from Schneider, the rock superstar went to hear McCaslin’s quartet in New York’s 55 Bar—an intimate space that the saxophonist regularly used to explore the unknown—and subsequently invited them to help bring a new batch of songs to life. In early 2015, they went into the studio; when they weren’t recording, McCaslin continued to work on keeping his career afloat, balancing family, teaching gigs, and the road. “It felt like this parallel reality,” he says of the secret sessions. “It was a musical environment that could not be more conducive to being creative. I’d come out of the studio saying, ‘Man, that felt so great.’ Day after day we were so enthralled about things, but then not being able to talk about it, it was surreal.”
Bowie, grappling with his own mortality, kept his cancer diagnosis secret. The album was released on the second Friday of 2016, and by Sunday night he was gone. Appropriately, McCaslin’s playing on the album is awash in mystery, intrigue, and sadness.
“Blackstar was a pivotal moment for me,” he says with some understatement. “It made a lot of things seem possible that hadn’t seemed possible prior to that.” McCaslin had been anointed by Bowie, then left on planet Earth to answer the countless riddles brought up by his parting statement. The band accepted Grammy Awards on Bowie’s behalf. The album was named one of the top five albums of the year by the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. In the midst of a deep exploration of EDM, McCaslin followed up Blackstar with Beyond Now, which featured the same core group, capitalizing on a bright global spotlight now following his every move.
“The inspiring part for me was David’s absolute openness as an artist and fearlessness in taking down barriers,” McCaslin says. “His laser focus on realizing his vision, being around that and having it be such an affirming process personally, was so deeply affirming. It gave me the feeling that yeah, I could do this. Why not do it?”
Monterey served as a rare two-day respite from the road for McCaslin’s band, in the middle of a West Coast tour that would end in Seattle before a lengthy jaunt through Europe. The week prior, they’d played at the Regent Theater, a 500-seat rock club hugging the borderline of Los Angeles’ skid row. Hometown heroes Kneebody opened the show, as they did for most of the tour. It was an apt billing: two fiercely independent, electronics-heavy future-funk ensembles. The club, a former movie theater with a big stage and balcony that typically hosts hip-hop and rock shows into the wee hours, is a long way from L.A.’s refined jazz rooms. Both bands made full use of the bulging sound system.
“For the vibe of what we are playing, the rock rooms feel good,” McCaslin says. “People are standing. Lighting really comes into play. There isn’t dinner and drinks. I feel like the direction the music is going lends itself to these alternative venues.”
Tim Lefebvre was an integral part of Blackstar and has worked with McCaslin for a decade. He and McCaslin have logged thousands of hours together onstage and in the studio, and the two co-wrote several of the songs on Blow. “I just feel like this is no time for imitation or settling into the pack,” he says. “Working with Bowie confirmed that for me. It’s a time to be brave and embrace weirdness and creativity.”
Lefebvre is a powerful electric bassist with deep roots. Lanky and scraggly, he lays a heavy foundation for McCaslin’s plugged-in sound. “Donny has only changed in his career viability,” he says. “He’s the same musician and dude he’s always been. He’s moved away from jazz production into more pop production. That entails getting deeper into sounds and sonic concepts.”
McCaslin cites an unusual, perhaps unique, set of influences for a saxophone-led “jazz” album. Grizzly Bear, LCD Soundsystem, the Beastie Boys, and Rage Against the Machine all provided pieces to the Blow puzzle. “This new album is based on songs,” he says. “That’s not something I would’ve imagined 10 years ago. That’s been a journey that was unexpected. Part of that was being on the road a lot in the last couple years, feeling like, ‘What’s going to come next?’ And having the time to work it out on the bandstand, find the direction and then find things that feed that direction.”
Several tracks on Blow fully embrace the ethos of anthem rock: thumping, vein-popping music with a message. On a collaboration with Canadian hard-rocker Ryan Dahle and producer Steve Wall called “Great Destroyer,” McCaslin fills the gaps, splaying out his horn over a primitive, metronomic guitar line. When he jumps in with joyous “ga ga ga ga” vocals on the hook, he enters a world of unifying, righteous rock á la Arcade Fire. Multilayered saxophones become a sprightly, almost ska-like horn section. It’s catchy, vibrant, and unexpected. “The Opener” follows, a moody walkabout that hinges on a monologue by alternative folk-rocker Mark Kozelek, a.k.a. Sun Kil Moon. McCaslin credits Blackstar with giving him the confidence to call up such people to work together.
The nearly 10-minute “Break the Bond” features the Blackstar band swirling in a fidgety instrumental angst. Lindner is ethereal while the rest of the rhythm section propels the song. The keyboardist gets his revenge later, as his playing devolves into a staticky swath that threatens to overtake everything. “Exactlyfourminutesofimprovisedmusic” is two seconds longer than billed, a neurotic freakout that separates McCaslin from the influences he cited earlier. Grizzly Bear won’t be including a fast-paced wail of free jazz and pummeling drums anytime soon.
“During the record-making process,” McCaslin acknowledges, “there is anxiety and fear. ‘What are people going to think about this? This is far from where I came from.’ Ultimately I give myself over to where I think the art is leading me. I’m going in full force because that feels like the real thing.”
On Sunday, September 23, the closing night of the Monterey Jazz Festival, McCaslin was back in a more straight-ahead bag, playing the title role in a tribute to Michael Brecker, which also featured the late saxophonist’s trumpet-playing brother Randy, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Antonio Sánchez. McCaslin had none of his extra widgets, only his horn. It was all he needed. From the opening notes of Brecker’s “Uptown Ed,” it was clear that he would be presenting the opposite side of the coin he had flashed the night before. He shook, shuddered, parried with Randy, and showed that for all his interest in experimentation, he’s still firmly in command of the fundamentals.
“Sometimes,” McCaslin says, “I ask, ‘Should I make this set more jazzy?’ But then it’s not going to have the same authenticity and impact. When the fear and anxiety would come up, I’d say, ‘No, man. I have to be fearless.’ It’s what I’ve always striven for my whole career. I don’t feel creative alone on a mountain for three months. I feel most creative on the bandstand.”