SOUNDS LIKE: Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and a lost J Dilla drum track playing simultaneously in the back of The Millennium Falcon.
It’s been nearly a month since Noah Bernstein and Dan Sutherland of experimental jazz hip-hop duo Grammies have seen each other, and instantly they’re making up for lost time.
“We’ll give you a minute to catch up on the disguises,” Bernstein says, laughing as he switches his Google Hangout costume from a party hat and mustache to a pirate get-up. “I’m already having too much fun.”
Bernstein is forced to video chat because he’s spent the better part of April and early May on the road with Shy Girls, the band that was handpicked to open 14 shows across the country for rising sister-pop act Haim. But it’s his other band that is garnering tons of attention this year—odd and rewarding for a saxophone-and-drums duo that, to the untrained ear, makes a pretty weird racket.
Grammies’ music comes from the experimental world, but it also has two feet firmly planted on the dance floor. Sutherland’s beats—grimy, chopped up and syncopated, like something Flying Lotus would come up with when he’s super-baked—are aided by the use of a sampler, and he jokes that even if he screws up he can trigger it to match with the drums. Though Bernstein hails from a pretty strict jazz background, the duo’s mutual love of hip-hop and “modulating R&B chords” leads to jams that work surprisingly well as standalone songs. If the band’s rhythm were the foundation of an old church, then Bernstein’s heavily processed saxophone is all the intricate details: the etched markings above the entryway, the stained-glass window fading from too many years in the sun.
Bernstein and Sutherland interact, even in the digital space, like two long-lost brothers in on the same joke. Their chemistry is also immediately evident onstage, with Sutherland locking in on his kit while Bernstein goes nuts on the saxophone, soloing over the top like a free-jazz Damian Lillard. You can hear that same spirit in Grammies’ debut album, Award Winning (engineered by Shy Girls’ Dan Vidmar), and their follow-up, recorded straight to tape in a St. Johns basement during February’s snow storm with help from their friends in fellow 2014 Best New Band finalist, WL.
“I never really imagined being able to pull off such a full, intense sound with just two people,” Bernstein says. “In the past it was always, ‘I have this not very well-paying gig, let me call a buddy.’ This band is totally perfect, vibe-wise.” MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.