The Toronto-based musicians of BadBadNotGood don’t play your typical, elevator jazz. The band’s concert last Saturday at Oakland’s Fox Theater was a whirlwind of jazz and hip hop that proved that its music is not only exciting, but that it’s the coolest experimental jazz group around.
From the moment the band walked on stage and launched into its opening tune, “Triangle” — a song from the group’s previous album III — it carried the crowd into an instantly passionate space of carefully constructed melodies laid over quickly changing rhythms. The musicians’ relatively casual demeanor was not intended to be overpowering, but their mastership of their instruments instantly drew the audience members in and kept them continuously captivated with each new note.
This engagement was furthered by the band’s unique dynamic — it was completely unclear who was the “leader” of this group, which kept listeners attentive to each member’s individual sound. While drummer Alexander Sowinski seemed to engage with the crowd the most, Leland Whitty’s saxophone appeared initially to be the star of the show.
Although newer to the band, Whitty did not lack talent. His long, piercing solos during songs like “Chompy’s Paradise” (named for the saxophonist’s own nickname) put the crowd in a trance, guided solely by Whitty’s buttery melodies and his simultaneously surprising and satisfying riffs. During these solos, all the crowd could do was melt. Sowinski said after the song, “We hope we can all work towards a paradise.” Whitty’s saxophone certainly took the crowd there.
Though the audience swooned over Whitty’s dreamy saxophone, as the show continued, another star emerged: Matthew Tavares on the keys. While unsuspecting at first, Tavares became the show’s greatest surprise: There was one moment when the entire band left the stage except for Tavares, who then proceeded to deliver a heart-shattering, lengthy piano solo until the rest of the band’s return. He transitioned through such a range of sounds — from gentle keystrokes that hit like tiny drops of water to powerful, earth-shaking chords that rocked the whole room — that the mere act of listening left the crowd exhausted from the piece’s emotional journey.
Regardless of which band member stood out the most, perhaps the most astounding aspect of the performance was the band’s cohesiveness. The band wove in and out of solos and impromptu jams, but each member still played off of one another with an impressive, masterful ease, as though each note had been planned beforehand.
This was perfectly demonstrated by BadBadNotGood’s faithful return to the song “IV,” off its most recent album of the same name. “IV” became a refrain for the set to which they returned multiple times throughout the show. After going off on a crazy, tangled web of improvisations, the band would suddenly bust out “IV,” tying it all back together. Its opening notes provided moments of pure satisfaction that released any and all tension built up during the group’s miniature jam sessions.
As the set came to a close with the vibrant, high-energy finale “CS60” from the album III, Sowinski had the audience crouch down to the ground while the band slowly built up tension musically. He then counted down for everyone to jump up in the air in time with a blaring and unified strike of a singular chord, to which the crowd happily obliged. Rather comically, the band followed this finale with an encore of jazzy Christmas music, proving itself to be the only band who could successfully follow an incredibly high-energy jam with “O Christmas Tree.”
But that’s really how BadBadNotGood operates — with a quirky, fun style that turns unexpectedly cool. The group can mix jazz and hip hop with whatever else it chooses to experiment, and the end result always works because its members play with confidence and a great deal of pizazz. Once the bandmates took their final bows, they left the stage goofily carrying off one of their fellow members. This exit epitomized how the band itself is a refreshing break from the often stuck-up modern jazz genre — despite the band’s extraordinary skill, its musicians didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Contact Julia Bertolero at [email protected].