Words by: Josh Potter | Images by: Kevin Haas
Happy Apple :: 11.16.07 :: Kuumbwa Jazz Center :: Santa Cruz, CA
The last time Happy Apple toured the West Coast they had some trouble. In the hands of a punk rock booking agent, the band was booed, ignored and asked to stop playing shows they'd already begun. To make matters worse, bassist Erik Fratzke was struck by a renegade bicyclist while tossing a football in a gas station parking lot and had to finish the tour with a shoulder injury. The thing is, Happy Apple is really a bunch of jolly, proper gents. The way they cast off high jazz pretense may have earned them a bit of a bad rap, and while the turnout at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center was true to their West Coast expectations, it was certainly not on account of the band's musicianship. They've simply been misunderstood.
| David King - Happy Apple :: 11.16 :: Santa Cruz|
"Maybe we should go by 'Ill Bomb,'" joked Fratzke. "That should bring out the sorority girls. Spread the word that we've got some hip-hop flowage happening down here."
While "hip-hop flowage" remained scarce this night, fierce, genre-busting jazz did not. It all started off with opening band Kneebody. A quintet featuring effects-laden Rhodes piano, sax and trumpet, the band offered architectural compositions where the logic of free jazz seemed to coagulate into tight, textural arrangements. Most tunes emerged from ostinato Rhodes parts that turned atmospheric as the rhythm section cobbled together accompanying syncopations. Like second-line Bach in obtuse key signatures, counterpoint crackled through their tunes, at times the pushing tempo like an electronica act, dissolving in and out with the effervescent Rhodes, and, at others launching lyrical, Wayne Shorter-esque explorations for the superb horn section. Kneebody ended their set with a deep, spacious ballad, where the drums eviscerated the rhythmic sub-strata of the composition with a polyrhythmic fashion reminiscent of the man most in the room had come to see, namely The Bad Plus' David King.
| Happy Apple :: 11.16:07 :: Santa Cruz|
Fresh off an outstanding spring release (PROG) with the Bad Plus, King reunited in August with long-time Minneapolis friends Happy Apple for their sixth studio album, Back On Top. Named for a '60s Fisher-Price toy that King often uses for percussion and a self-described "tree falling on the forest moon of Endor," irreverent, avant-garde jazz has long been their forte. While their prior, ill-fated punk billing was no doubt a misreading of their audience, the band does bring a whole new meaning to Jaco Pastorius' prescient "punk-jazz" label, especially when placed in a straight jazz context.
Moving through tunes like "World Horse Event," "Hence the Turtleneck" and "The Broad Side of the Silent Barn," King took ample time to familiarize the thin crowd with the band's material. As adept at extemporaneous witticism as he is at the rhythmic dissection of the band's surprisingly happy-go-lucky themes, King explained that it can be nice to have "smarmy inside jokes when you write instrumental music because the rest of the time you're in abject pain." It was a primer on what King described as "depressing Midwestern music." Without a mask for the world or a brash word for the square jazz world, the music did contain a certain Midwestern pathos - perhaps the most "experimental" element of the sound.
At total ease, the band played as if for close friends in a basement apartment. Saxophonist Michael Lewis blew loose embouchure solos the way Thurston Moore might play free-jazz tenor, allowing enough breath to escape from his horn that each note rode the back of a vocal cry. Assuming wide Flea stances, Fratzke remained impressively nimble on his fretboard, especially considering the intensity with which he attacked his supporting basslines. Comping chords and tapping harmonics, the Jaco analogy remained valid for more than just stylistic purposes. However, King was the reason for the evening. While he described himself, after calling attention to Fratzke's athletic glasses strap, as "kind of chubby," the truth of King's drumming is that it's as muscular as it comes. More Art Blakey than John Bonham, there is a delicacy at the end of every stroke – a testament to the support and responsiveness with which he approaches every project.
| Erik Fratzke :: 11.16|
Drawing from their prior album, Please Refrain From Fronting, described by King as Rolling Stone's number 87 album of all time despite the 300 total copies it sold. They offered up "You & Mattel Vs Me & Coleco" and "Salmon Jumpsuit," each astounding that the fractured compositions could be rendered with such precision. After apologizing for Fratzke's "thoroughly Minnesotan" move of placing his foot on a cocktail table to jokingly snatch the wallet from Kneebody's bassist, King asked the crowd to hold an image in its mind for the next tune. "You walk outside the 7-11 and there he is, an out-of-work robot wondering if you need any stumps removed. He's willing, also, to paint or hang drywall if you're looking for a laborer." And so began "Freelance Robots."
After a sarcastic skronk-off between Lewis and Fratzke, during which the schmaltz of Lewis' tenor was trumped by Fratzke's raunchy bass fills, the band brought the evening to a close with "Homage Richie Valens." There was no misunderstanding this night - progressive jazz is still the most challenging thing around. Despite a wholly enthusiastic response, the ever-modest King suggested that if riding the fence between jazz and rock worlds doesn't work out they could still "take 'em all at the Hollywood Guitar Center."
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