Insider's Music for the Sedentary Man?

LATELY I'VE BEEN coming to terms with jazz. Like buying a house or asking my doctor about Rogaine, that's a task I'd figured I could put off for a few years yet. Nothing against the stuff--I know it isn't just for fogies; I've got my own preferences and follies (Monk, big saxophones, no vibes, thanks) and I can fake my way more fluently through a discussion of more eras and major figures in that genre than I can in, say, dub. Besides, even though it ain't quite my precinct to patrol, I've written about whatever seizes my attention when I feel particularly overcome by hubris.

But when your mission in life is to convince the world that pop musicians--not just De La Soul and Yo La Tengo but the Backstreet Boys and Three 6 Mafia--have as much to offer as practitioners of accepted art musics do, you can feel like you're putting on airs when you dabble in the more respected genres. Still, this year an increased focus on jazz has seemed unavoidable, what with one or two James Carter discs bobbing around in my tentative Top Ten for the year, and great new records from Sonny Rollins and David S. Ware impinging on my listening time as well. Besides, if Ken Burns can reduce a century of varied stylistic innovations to a mere five-disc "comprehensive" soundtrack for his upcoming PBS history entitled (dig this nifty little bit of appropriation) Ken Burns's Jazz, I can yammer on for a bit about what's tickled my tympanum.

"You'd think we were Phish": Erik Fratzke, Mike Lewis, and Dave King  of Happy Apple
"You'd think we were Phish": Erik Fratzke, Mike Lewis, and Dave King of Happy Apple

Which brings us to Doug Little's Subtle Differences (Touché Jazz). You might know saxophonist Little from his thoughtful playing as a member of the Minneapolis quartet Motion Poets--it's how I knew him. But the title of his debut as a leader summed up everything I feared about contemporary jazz: performance as a showcase for subtlety, nuance, shades of tone and timbre that a galumphing boor like me doesn't have the concentration to parse. The quintessential insider's music for the sedentary man.

My fears were unfounded. Sure, the pleasures here are often in the details--the way pianist Craig Taborn drops delicate high-end punctuation on "Tangerine," the stealthy yet steady interaction between bassist Jeff Bailey and drummer J.T. Bates throughout. But I wouldn't call the results overly subtle. Not only does Little write snazzy heads, but his solos often match his composed tunes for melodic density. And Little is equally comfortable swooping upward in an improvisatory quest or whispering with a seductive bass clarinet on "Charade."

Fortunately, I'm flexing my interest in local jazz just as Happy Apple is happening to wax newsworthy. The avant-jazz trio is set to release a limited-edition three-disc package of live material at the Cedar Cultural Centre on Friday, November 24. That's limited as in no more than 200 copies, available only to fans at Minneapolis and St. Paul shows, wrapped in twine and individually autographed by the band.

"A large portion of the band's history has been recorded since the beginning of '97," explains drummer Dave King with characteristic excitability. "Most of our local shows are on tape. We were documenting the stuff for ourselves, to work on arrangements based on the tapes. But every [night], ten people or so are asking for a tape of the show. You'd think we were Phish."

The band plowed through more than a hundred DATs over the course of a month and a half, an ordeal King refers to as "a ridiculously grueling process." But he adds that listening to the tapes, often for the first time, reinvigorated the band. "When you're in the moment, you don't realize what's going on," he says of the band's performances. "But after listening to these tapes, we were turning to each other saying, 'Man, you're the baddest cat around!'"

The discs also include a few of King's between-song rambles, which have become crowd favorites--a fact that amuses and nonpluses King. "We were in Ann Arbor, and someone called out, 'Tell a story,'" he recalls. Then he reveals the real reason for his rambles: "The only reason I talk is because [saxophonist] Mike Lewis looks at me and shows me that he needs a breather. He looks at me and holds up a number of fingers for how many minutes he needs, and I start talking."

Time's up.

 
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