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Notes from the Frozen Underground

Happy Apple bring pre-fusion modernism to a resurgent jazz scene



Who do you ask about new jazz releases? A lot of what falls across the path of the accidental enthusiast these days—let’s say, the person who goes to the record store without a studied-up-on target album to hoist out of the jazz section (ah, there it is…never know when something’s going to come back into print for, like, five seconds)—often does so because the artist and/or album have some kind of crossover appeal and people catch wind of it through an optimal number of channels. Medeski, Martin and Wood are a good example—like a musical version of the horse and gun fronts meeting in Montana in the 1760s, except it’s the jazz front and the jam front. They’ve got the critical acclaim and the groundswell of support in tripper circles thrilled by technique but mindful of a certain groovy vibe, too. So eventually Rolling Stone has to start paying attention—and hamfistedly tossing around names to shore up their street cred ex post facto. Provided, that is, that the illuminating Britney Spears tour diary doesn’t spill over into the space set aside for prestige reviews.

So, jazz is coming back into vogue again—through the back door, and for that you can thank electronica, watery acid jazz and hip-hop DJs peeling entire basslines out of old Herbie Hancock and Spectrum tracks like big black veins from jumbo shrimp. Tortoise and Ken Vandermark, who is as close to a household name as anyone in the once and future crucible of the Chicago scene. Also purveyors of that jazz-funk edge of the kind you can go see downtown either night of the weekend.

Slightly to the north and west, in Minneapolis, a trio called Happy Apple (named after a Fisher-Price kids’ toy) have been busy polishing a sound that falls somewhere between the technicolorism large in Chicago and the bluish expressionism of vintage Ornette Coleman. Happy Apple do not truck with the fusion or the funk—thank heavens, and I say this after a weekend spent listening to one Return to Forever album on endless repeat no less than ten times in the course of an afternoon’s absentminded puttering. They do not buffet the listener with tough but soulless chops to leave you feeling like you’ve been given a direct jazz order. They employ some rock dynamics and lots of backbeat accents, but they also let you feel your own way around their compositions instead of merely dragging you around with all the sudden changes they’re capable of, or (and this would be worse) with all the different styles and genres an ensemble with less restraint might be tempted to wad into one composition. In short, the trio hearken back to a time when there were more ensembles playing music like this but expecting less praise for it, and on their most recent recording, Part of the Solution Problem, they make five years together seem laid-back and comfortable instead of hungry and anxious to break through by any means necessary.

A lot of comparisons seem to apply here: bassist Erik Fratzke certainly sounds like he’s worn out a Jaco Pastorius album or two, but both he and drummer David King fittingly seem to have soaked up a lot of influences from lesser-heralded Coleman players like Paul Motian, too. Michael Lewis is front and center on the saxophones—most stirringly, the soprano—but his rangy style borrows from everybody from the big O to the more playful cadences of Ellery Eskelin.

Here’s something odd: the show is at Jay’s Upstairs. But for a band who credits the rock scene in name, if not wholly in deed, for helping them find a niche and bring their sound to the people, it’s as fitting a place as any. Given the odd-bird nature of a modernist band like Happy Apple in a dumbed-down jazz-funk world, it’s very appropriate to hear them someplace they weren’t expected.

Happy Apple drops into Jay’s Upstairs Friday, Aug. 3. Cover TBA.

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