BadBadNotGood shows may be indescribable, even imperfect—but they’re a hell of a good time.
It’s insanely difficult to describe a BadBadNotGood show. They’re a jazz group, but they released an album with Ghostface Killah, and sometimes they cover Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” during encores. Their shows are littered with jazz nerds, but also the kinds of college kids you’d probably see at a Mac DeMarco gig: cuffed jeans, herbal cigarettes, round glasses that are just wide enough to fully cover the pupil. A BadBadNotGood show might be the only place in Boston where you could expect to run into both an esteemed Berklee professor and the guy who sold you bad weed during your first year of undergrad.
If it’s tough to describe their demographic, it’s much easier to understand their appeal. Made up of four twenty-something music students from Toronto, the young group fuses their formal jazz training with the loose rules and youthful energy of hip-hop and electronic music. It’s non-stuffy dinner party music: funky bass licks, complex key arrangements and liberal smatterings of saxophone that dismantle dusty ideals about what jazz can and should be. It’d be easy to oversell the group as revolutionary, charging them with singlehandedly changing the way Generation Y engages with old styles. They’re not that. But they are smart, savvy, and fun—and most importantly, they put on a hell of a show.
The group has frequented the Boston area over the last three or four years, typically setting fire to the intimate downstairs space at The Middle East in Cambridge’s Central Square. On Thursday, though, they moved to the heart of downtown Boston, playing the trendy, 1000-capacity Royale nightclub. Their playing was sharp as ever, but the venue switch presented some moderate growing pains.
The Royale is one of New England’s largest non-arena performance spaces, and the major power of a BadBadNotGood show lies in their ability to fill a room with nothing but keys, bass, drums, and a sax. The wide-open sprawl of the Royale’s wooden dancefloor left too much room for the intensity to fill. Leland Whitney’s sax still cut straight to the solar plexus, and more upbeat numbers, like “Confessions” off the band’s third record, still elicited more than a few fist pumps—but the ability to step out and observe the chaos from the distant comfort of a barstool weakened the show’s overall impact. At times, depending greatly on one’s distance from the stage, it felt more like a thoughtful stab at nu-jazz than a visceral experience.
That said, the group’s chemistry remained as dynamic and impressive as ever. Refreshingly light on stage banter, their hour-plus set relied instead on the genuine musical interplay they’ve established across six years of playing together. Accompanied by some well-programmed lights and a banner featuring Woodstock from the Peanuts franchise, there was little else to hide behind. No vocals, dancing or visual trickery were in place to absorb any musical deficits. BadBadNotGood are remarkably, well, good at improvising off of one another without creating the insularity of a Phishy jam-band set. They’re polished but generous, bookish but joyous enough to say “you don’t have to understand chromatics to get in on this.”
About halfway through the set, in a rare moment of audience interaction, drummer Alexander Sowinksi put his hand up and said simply, “Keep floatin’, keep flyin’.” The response was ecstatic. Even more unpredictable than the crowd of a BadBadNotGood show is that crowd’s response. Several clusters of revelers shouted “Keep flyin’!” back, others started a mosh pit, a few sloppily hoisted their drinks into the air, gently dousing everyone in their vicinity. While the size of the Royale caused plenty of this energy to leak, BadBadNotGood managed to conjure it in the first place. Their shows may be indescribable, even imperfect—but they’re a hell of a good time.