In the language of modern jazz, sonic references to different historical periods inherently fail to say anything new. As such, it’s almost essential that jazz artists evolve and reconfigure their work in fresh contexts if they hope to stick around. BADBADNOTGOOD have been finding their own way in jazz through their shared love for other genres, specifically hip-hop, since first meeting at a Toronto jazz program in 2010. The collective’s fourth album serves as a roadmap connecting all of the giants they’ve lent their talents to (Ghostface Killah, Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown), continuing a case for why jazz is currently in a state of heavy crossbreeding with other genres. But with IV, they also stand poised to emerge from their place as the backing band.
From the moment that crystalline keyboard riff and sparse drum machine open the first track, “And That, Too,” it’s clear the band has raised the stakes to match the talent they’ve been hanging out with. These instrumentals become the backdrop for imposing their arrangements on new frontiers, as Leland Whitty’s free sax transforms “Speaking Gently” into an electro-soul groove, buoyed by keyboardist Matthew Tavares’ evolving, modal clusters of celestial chords. On its five tracks featuring outside collaborators, IV captures the band functioning as a wellspring for cross-pollination. “Lavender” incorporates the downtown Chicago textures of Kaytranada, repaying the favor for the group’s cameo on “WEIGHT OFF,” from the producer’s deathlessly catchy debut, 99%, released earlier this year.
BADBADNOTGOOD played with Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring in Los Angeles last year, and IV’s “Time Moves Slow” has emerged as the pairing’s logical endpoint, repurposing the singer’s now-signature throaty warble to a more subdued effect; it’s not just another jazz crooner impression. “Hyssop of Love” revisits BBNG’s affinity for backing live hip-hop by showcasing thoughtful Chicago MC Mick Jenkins, while fellow Toronto up-and-comer Charlotte Day Wilson aids on the R&B stunner “In Your Eyes.” As a vocal climax to IV, Wilson’s big moment feels a little anticlimactic, but taken in the larger context of the record’s all-over-the-place exuberance, it’s a necessary comedown.
Though these duets are well-distributed among instrumentals that play to the band’s strengths, they resist showing off. Drummer Alexander Sowinski lives comfortably in the pocket throughout IV, coming out with the nastiest fills only as things progress. The full restraint these dudes show across the album makes it all the more impressive when the gymnastic title track crash-lands two-thirds in. And on the closer, “Cashmere,” Tavares abandons synthesized textures and simply tickles the ivories, like he’s bringing the futurist tendencies of the record back to present-day Earth. Therein lies BADBADNOTGOOD’s secret: modestly lending their mastery of these styles to the artists they love — even when they take top billing.