There is much debate about whether our universe is ordered and purposeful or just a random, chaotic mess. At face value, our lives seem to have a purpose, and everything seems to happen for a reason, until everything comes crashing down. And then we are forced to either see these failures as a life test, some weird thing we call “fate,” or just another step in a completely random system of life experiences that inevitably lead to death and suffering.
OK, wait a minute. This is getting way too heavy for a music review. But I say all of this because we can use these two opposing views of the universe to try and figure out how music works. For example, those who accept the verse-chorus-verse, three-chord pop-song structure of music probably believe in an ordered universe, since their music is ordered and predictable. When a musician comes along to challenge this song structure, they can be easily tagged as poor musicians or too “experimental.” However, those who accept music that goes beyond the predictability of most pop songs probably don’t see much order in the universe, and are willing to try new things since there’s nothing to lose anyway. This view of the universe works especially well for jazz, since most jazz musicians are willing to improvise around a single song riff, and just let loose.
Minnesota-based jazz trio Happy Apple are certainly not afraid to experiment with chaos, and their free-form jazz style breaks through almost all possible genre barriers. Happy Apple’s latest album, Happy Apple Back on Top, takes some of the best aspects of rock, punk, jazz, blues, and funk (and about every other possible genre) and throws it all together in a complete improvisational package.
In fact, there is hardly a moment of complete sanity on Back On Top. Once Happy Apple lulls you into thinking they’re going to stick with one thing for the rest of the song, they’ll switch gears, leaving you with either a headache or some serious admiration. For most jazz ensembles today, you get a fairly predictable mix between song structure and improvisation, but with Happy Apple, it feels like complete improvisation. Back On Top is just a complete grab-bag of the trio’s favorite musical styles, and it isn’t afraid to abandon its jazz roots every now and then.
Happy Apple Back On Top kicks off with “The New Bison,” a song that immediately establishes saxophonist Michael Lewis as the central player in this band. But there is also a heavy presence of drums and bass; in fact, the song starts with a muddled bass riff, and breaks into a fully synthesized drum jam before making way for Lewis’ sax arpeggios. Since the album is completely instrumental, the dynamic between bass guitar and saxophone seem to work as the melody and harmony of each song, propped up by drummer David King’s great sense of rhythm. Even then, it’s still hard to make sense of any melody or harmony, since every member seems set on improvising every riff in their own way.
Even though Back On Top is a heavily improvised album, Happy Apple still show that they are excellent musicians. The band feels as tight as possible, and on songs like “1996 A.D.” and “Density in Dan’s Fan City,” the band doesn’t miss a beat. Like their previous albums, such as 2003’s successful Youth Oriented, the band is not afraid of lengthy jam sessions that are hard to re-create. But since this is one very talented group of musicians, everything feels planned out and methodical. Certainly, Happy Apple are able to mix the best parts of jazz improvisation with one or two motifs that hold each song together and create a unified (albeit chaotic) theme.
If there’s any complaint for Back On Top, it’s that it seems much more subdued than their previous work. For example, 2003’s Youth Oriented had some louder sax moments and didn’t shy away from some excellent electric guitar work; in fact, the inclusion of a distorted electric guitar is partly why Happy Apple got lumped together with other indie rock musicians. Including drum machines and synthesizers is certainly a step forward for the band, but it doesn’t have the same punch as their previous albums.
Happy Apple Back on Top is an excellent album that will attract fans from all sorts of musical genres, but it remains true to its jazz roots. Certainly, Happy Apple love to mess with your head, and their music is a bit chaotic, but it seems to work. Instead of accepting the inevitable decline of the universe, Happy Apple seems to just let it be, and as a result, they are here on this earth to create some excellent music.
Originally published at Blogcritics.org: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/11/17/110305.php