Baby Steps

Love it or leave it: The proud Minnesotans of avant-jazz trio Happy Apple

Dave King, drummer and composer for the locally heralded avant-jazz trio Happy Apple, loves his home state with a passion that borders on jingoism. One of the band's T-shirts features this aggressive non sequitur: We're Happy Apple. We're From Minnesota. And You're Dead.

And, in conversation, King sounds like a hometown clone of indie rock's mutant polemicist Steve Albini--fiercely opinionated, unapologetically egomaniacal, and committed to an indie ethos that folds like a cymbal stand at the first whiff of major label interest. King, who grew up in Minneapolis and returned home in 1995 after stints playing in Los Angeles and New York City, is strangely convinced that the Twin Cities offers the perfect landscape for out-jazz experimentation.

"We get off on being from Minnesota," King says. "When we're in New York, we tell people, 'We're going home to breathe air, not to hear taxis screaming all night, or pay two thousand bucks' rent and scramble for shitty-ass gigs in the Village. We're playing to 1,500 people a night. We're selling more records than you're selling. We're playing festivals. Other jazz groups don't draw crowds. We're getting the skate punkers, the hip-hop people, the indie-rock kids."

Apple began as a collaboration between King and saxophonist Michael Lewis; bassist Cully Swanson and saxophonist/flutist Anton Denner joined soon after. Shortly after recording the band's 1996 debut, Blown Shockwaves and Crash Flow, Denner and Swanson left the group and were replaced this January by bassist Erik Fratzke. Happy Apple has been playing successfully as a trio ever since, even drawing the interest of Warner Bros. before opting to sign with the hometown indie label No Alternative when they couldn't work out a better deal with the gutless major. "They couldn't figure out how to market us," King huffs.

Yet the opportunity to woodshed locally might be the best thing that ever happened to them. Blown Shockwaves is giddy but indecisive, trading heady bebop volleys with Albert Ayleresque skronks. Only the mournful ballad "Lullaby for Sharks," with its beautifully intertwining sax lines and a theme that almost quotes the alien melody from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, steps out from the fray.

The just-out Part of the Solutionproblem tries a different tack, re-examining the funk fusion that's all the retro rage these days. Beginning with Miles Davis's outlandish space-rock, the group shambles through a miasma of slinky basslines and funky Fender Rhodes textures. "Commercial Ascension" starts off with a frenetic groove, with Fratzke throwing bright, jabbing chords at a swinging sax line. But after a few noodly breakdowns, he treads dangerously close to Flea-bitten excess, with King revving up the tempo so forcibly that the song accidentally becomes self-parody. "Mary's Mixture" is a sweet tip of the hat to John Coltrane, but its midsection solo circles the main theme like an airplane with an empty fuel tank and nowhere to land. "Waystation 1976" opens with an airy percussion riff that strives to make ambient funk, as if concocting a syrupy sonic NyQuil. Yet just as we prepare to take off for dreamland, Lewis comes in with a plaintive, sensual lead.

What's most disappointing about Solutionproblem (besides its cumbersome title) is its unconvincing free-jazz tics, which sound more like midsong temper tantrums than rapturous outbursts. Happy Apple aims to re-enact some of jazz's finest achievements (Coltrane's meditations, Ayler's group conversations, Ornette Coleman's harmolodics), but in an aimless, unfocused way that only rehashes the (undeniably superior) players to whom the group alludes. Throughout, the band's attempts at unfettered improvisation pale in comparison to their moving melodies, which run the gamut of emotions from deep despair to exhaustive joy.

Possibly hoping to flesh out some of the more linear possibilities implicit in those melodies, the group recorded Solutionproblem with pop-minded Polara bassist and former Jayhawks collaborator Jason Orris. "We wanted to work with someone from the Mitch Easter school of rock production--someone who was used to trying to get insane guitar sounds and who wanted to take that approach to recording a saxophone," King says.

He didn't. But the band's A&R contact at Warner Bros. did hook them up with another studio whiz, His Name Is Alive brain trust Warren Defever, who did a mind-boggling remix of the band's "Cream Soda" single (originally intended for release on the Warner-affiliated Generator Records). The force and freshness of the remixed single eclipses anything the band has put out so far. With trippy, looped sax blasts, cascades of keyboards, and ominous, marching rhythms, DeFever's version (titled "Long Time Gone") boldly goes where no jazz has gone before. His strange brew of orchestral pop, funk, bebop, and haunting minimalism sounds like a snippet of Bitches Brew as remixed by Brian Wilson. In contrast to the tired wheezing emanating from the worst stuff on Solutionproblem, "Long Time Gone" hints that Happy Apple might have the potential to make music adventurous enough to meet the demands of King's expansive imagination--and maybe even to sate his ravenous ego.

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