Sounds Like: Happy Apple Live in the Coffeehouse

Dan Willis

For those of you who were lucky enough to catch the Minneapolis-based jazz trio Happy Apple in the coffeehouse Sunday night, you have reached the next step on your journey toward eternal blessedness.
For those of you who missed it, you might consider killing yourselves now – you will never reach the height of ecstasy that you would have experienced had you been there. After the first tune, an obliterating space-romp of ridiculous time signatures and fiery exploration, the audience of hoodie-clad homeworkers was hooked.
You trusted them, they had established a decorum of honest musical striving, they were going to push themselves, they were going to push you, and they were going to have fun.
Besides the overall impressive set, the most striking feature of their performance was the pervasive sense of fun. They were like kids playing with their favorite toys, but authentic play where the kid doesn’t stick to the backstory of the action figure but makes up his own meaning and parameters for the imagination tool. So it was with these guys, especially drummer David King. It’s clear that he is under 40 and grew up with MTV and all the trappings of its resultant pop-cultishness.
King is not ashamed of his love of nonjazz, and it shines through in his exuberant, humorous, yet sincere and relentlessly expressive playing. Like in the third selection of the evening which began with a loosey-goosey, sarcastic, drunken swing feel: King cradled the time on his ride symbol with such a firm, assured but sporadic dictation of time you couldn’t help but sense a sly wink towards Tony Williams. But just when you had a chance to start grinning at his loping swing he exploded into the frantic hi-hat pyrotechnics of a face-melting speed-punk sprint.
Michael Lewis’s playing has a restless, angsty, purple pain, which works as a foil to and a focus for King’s amalgamation of styles and often goofy beat collages. But that is not to pigeonhole Lewis. He showed some serious range of expression moving from melancholic secret-sharing to Coltrane-esque forays into infinitely ascending spirals. All the while, Erik Fratzke’s warm relaxed bass keeps the group from spinning off into the ionosphere.
But these guys have something especially unique as artists. It’s not entirely clear from their recordings, but the band’s verbal interactions (especially King’s) with the audience showed that they have passed through the slog of irony. Granted, Dave King lay down a torrent of ironic humor including jokes about Helen Keller, USA Today, and Metallica’s artistic bankruptcy. But when juxtaposed against such an ironic backdrop, something illuminating and refreshing happens.
If they slide into a sneering disco groove or dedicate a song to a news story about Twix-craving giant bison roaming South America, it’s not necessarily because they seek to reveal the absurdity of modern consumerism or how our minds have been corrupted by a hyper over-saturation of television. Rather, while their song titles (Me & Mattel vs. You & Coleco) and rhetoric might sometimes smack of the cynical malaise of irony, their music overflows with sincerity and an invigorating optimism. Such sincerity played against their apparent irony reveals a message of something like, “Yes, Viacom has debased human emotion, and yes, Coca-Cola has hijacked the meaning of ‘thirsty,’ but there are still things out there that are actually worth caring about.” While irony is plastic and ultimately vapid, Happy Apple’s music is authentic and rejuvenatingly vital.