Happy Apple: defier of genres, savior of jazz

Nathan Lane

Let me quickly explain the aesthetic black hole that the jazz trio Happy Apple lives in:
Real jazz purists, such as Wynton Marsalis, rail against modern trends in jazz, such as the movement away from “standard” repertoire, non-swinging rhythms and the disappearance of the enigmatic quality of playing called the blues.
Opponents of Marsalis emphasize jazz’s tradition of progressiveness and assimilation of diverse musical styles.
The music of the former draws from jazz history and tradition and is generally considered accessible and moving, if old fashioned or dated. The latter draws on personal artistic vision and technical experimentation in a way that tends to alienate laymen but is stimulating to trained ears.
They accuse each other of horrendous taste and the attempted destruction of jazz.
Both are correct. Jazz conservatives’ failure to explore risks limits jazz to a period, while jazz progressives would perpetuate a trajectory of shrinking audiences and social irrelevance, making jazz a niche phenomenon of its own kind that is no more significant, discounting the degrees in music, than people that run around in fur suits.
Happy Apple exists in neither and both of these camps. The music that the trio brought to the Lawrence campus last Friday had not only enough harmonic and compositional sophistication to satisfy the most high-minded modernist, but also the snappy melodies and underlying danceable feeling needed to satisfy a purist.
Erik Fratzke, wearing brown pants and a mesh trucker’s cap, may look more at home with some scenester music effort than with a jazz trio, but his playing is a tight fit.
He Jaco’s his way through saxophone melodies and lays down crunchy chords and bass lines to do the work of two thirds of a rhythm section. I kept looking around the stage for an effects pedal, but there was none to be found — Fratzke elicited a synthesizer’s worth of timbres from his instrument.
Michael Lewis’ approach to the tenor saxophone is shocking upon first listen, but upon adjustment, breathtaking for its naked emotionalism. One solo found him off-balance, leaning against a wall, gasping for air.
His playing recalls Ornette Coleman for its honking, unrepentant inflection, but it is emphatic enough to eschew avant-garde affectation and speak in direct emotional terms. However, his furiously fast solo lines show his strengths where Coleman would have failed.
David King is a drummer with an already established reputation with his other band, the Bad Plus. He draws on diverse sources for his beats, using recognizable jazz and even — gasp — rock beats. He is an unbending force of cohesion that keeps free sections together and solos ferocious, abusing cymbals with advanced technique until one couldn’t stand upright.
And, of course, there were the Fischer-Price toys, adding a surprisingly spooky ambience to dramatic finishes.
Happy Apple brought all of these elements to the standing-room-only crowd in the coffeehouse, one, Hallelujah, not composed only of the jazz department.
Dave King, pleased with the sizable and enthusiastic reception, spoke for the band and expressed his pleasure at seeing people listening to something that required “something more than an eight-second attention span” and “gave them hope for the future.”
Happy Apple hopes to capture the imagination of a new demographic and restore vitality to jazz, and many in attendance in the coffeehouse seemed to be of like mind.