The Year of the Apple


*Happy Apple*
*Cedar Cultural Center*

In true workhorse form, the members of the Twin Cities-based genre-shifting jazz trio “Happy Apple”: wasted no time in getting the New Year off to a strong start, with a set of three concerts over two weekends in early January.

This is with good reason, as 2006 marks the 10th year of performing and recording for the group, without an end in sight. Originally a four-piece on 1996’s _Blown Shock Waves and Crash Flow_, the group came to be the now-infamous trio of Michael Lewis (saxophones and electronics), Eric Fratzke (electric bass guitar), and David King (drums, percussion, and comedy) by the time of their next full-length recording, _Part of the Solution Problem_ (1998). Since then the band has expanded their reach into the avant-garde the world ‘round, and has received a great deal of acclaim both here and abroad. (Their most recent recording, 2005’s _The Peace Between Our Companies_, was released in France in an edition different from the American issue.)

The past ten years have found Happy Apple ranging across the board of jazz, infusing their own brand of the genre with clamor, reflection, space, and the spirit of rock and roll. In doing so, the group has come to form a sound and aesthetic that has brought a new, young audience into the world of jazz by focusing on a style that references and builds on the history of the music without relying on imitation.

After a two-night stand at the Artist’s Quarter on January 6 and 7, Happy Apple brought their music to the West Bank’s Cedar Cultural Center for a single show before a capacity crowd on January 14. The Cedar offered the band a chance to work on a larger stage and in front of a larger audience, an opportunity that does not always translate well for small jazz combos.

That said, it then must be noted that Happy Apple is not, and has never been, typical of anything. As it turned out, the change in venue led the group to emphasize and punctuate the dynamic elements of their pieces, while also giving Lewis a chance to experiment with microphone placement and Fratzke the opportunity to stomp about as he pleased. The music that followed that night played like a retrospective and highlighted the many reasons for which Happy Apple represents a rare achievement in contemporary improvised music.

After a fine set by openers Shovel (a new collective featuring Anthony Cox, Brent Sandy, JT Bates, and Dean Magraw), Happy Apple proceeded into two newer pieces, “Long Live Rock and Roll” and “A Little Splash for the Senator.” The group worked through an array of compositions throughout the night, performing mostly unrecorded pieces, with the addition of a couple of works from past albums (surprisingly, no tracks on _The Peace Between Our Companies_ appeared). Happy Apple covered their spectrum, with pieces ranging from reflective ballads to wild free jazz, at times combining the two. Among the variety of songs performed, some stood out as ideal representations of the sound that Happy Apple has cultivated and offered a glimpse into what lies ahead for them.

Chief among such pieces was the unrecorded piece “And Now for the Syncopated Styles of Chick Webb.” This composition could be categorized as a loose ABA form, with A and B being strikingly different. The piece began with King playing an Elvin Jones, _Ascension_-era swing pattern and working his way around the rest of the kit, while Lewis played a clear lead over the top (as per earlier Coltrane), and Fratzke established a pulsating bass accompaniment.

This was Happy Apple in a moment of seeming disarray, utilizing the improvisatory language set in motion by Ornette Coleman in which each instrument is free to comment on what is played by the others. King spoke back to Lewis’s sax work with controlled tom hits that allowed him to coax a great number of sounds out of the two drums, and Fratzke intervened with bass work that was as much Jaco Pastorious as it was Geezer Butler. Allowing his bass to distort, Fratzke brought forth a timbre not often heard in jazz, but what was to follow would be even more difficult to place in context. Satisfied with the progress of the A section of the piece, the trio then introduced one of their most important compositional tools: space.

Ed Thigpen, longtime jazz drumming great and an early member of the Oscar Peterson trio, once said that playing quietly is much more effective than bashing through a piece, for the simple fact that people will be forced to become conscious of the noise in the crowd and adjust in order to hear the music. No strangers to holding an audience captive, Happy Apple employed this idea in its fullest. Not only did they lower their volume, but they also allowed for spacious gaps between sounds, an introduced the minimalist idea of developing each event over a series of repetitions.

While early free jazz and avant-garde forms relied on a barrage of sounds in order to be heard, the members of Happy Apple created a contrary form of transgression that exposed the audience to an unexpected change of events, which in turn bore a contrast and new point of interest. After the hectic opening of “Chick Webb” they changed styles radically during an extended bridge. King set aside his sticks in favor of a toy megaphone that allowed him to create a series of tones by pressing it against both his leg and various drums. The light din was complemented by Fratzke’s low bass drones and by Lewis backing away from the microphone and playing quiet, breathy tones on his tenor saxophone. This B section evolved very slowly, with the audience becoming more and more involved in listening to each sound and anticipating what would come next. Then, as suddenly as it began, the middle section came to a close, with King restating the up-tempo pseudo-swing of the opening, and Lewis providing another strong melody on top. In the course of one song, Happy Apple was able to cover more musical territory than many musicians do in a career.

Beyond “And Now for the Syncopated Styles of Chick Webb,” the rest of the evening’s set included pieces that ranged from the Cannonball Adderly-summoning ballad “Turning 29,” to the groove-oriented “Hence the Turtleneck.” The transitions from song to song were aided by King’s monologues on various themes and directions (as in the introduction to “Lefse Los Cubanos,” in which he explained that the song stemmed from an interest in the fictional interaction between Viking explorers and traditional Cuban cultures), and the evening carried a light tone as a result.

So here again was another strong showing by Minnesota’s claim to avant-fame, as Happy Apple demonstrated the result of 10 productive years of music making. Even though each member works with other projects throughout the year, performances such as this one show that nothing is lost in the interim—piquing interest in what another ten years might bring.

For more on Happy Apple, see: