by Dan Lehner
Winter Jazzfest 2016 started off with a bang this year - or, more accurately, a series of bangs alongside wails, screams, drones, scrapes and other sonic intensities. Adam Schatz introduced one of the most audacious beginnings to a WJF in recent memory Wednesday night at Le Poisson Rouge, featuring one act long missed, one never before performed, and one scarcely heard in the states (Happy Apple, Colin Stetson/Bill Laswell duo and The Ex, respectively). All were united by their hard-edged energy, pan-punk aesthetics and questing improvisational spirit.
Happy Apple's last appearance at a Search and Restore co-production (and in fact, last appearance almost anywhere at all) was at the Undead Jazz festival 2010. As such, the return of one of the quintessential "punk jazz" trios of the new millennium was eagerly anticipated and the band more than delivered. As they always have, Happy Apple took a cue from seminal alt and indie rock bands like The Pixies in their sensitivity for dynamics, particularly through saxophonist Michael Lewis's near-limitless range of ideas. Lewis toggled through breathy whispers and frenzied runs, both as a soloist on tunes like "Hence the Turtleneck" and as part of the group dynamic of "Freelance Robotics". The trio remains great melody writers, perpetuating rhythmic ear worms through their standbys like "Rise! Marc Anthony" and staccato indie rock energy on new tunes like "Vermillion Nocturne" (proving themselves worthy of a "much-anticipated" label on a new potential release).
Happy Apple's occasional sense of peacefulness could not be found in the following act. Not to say that the never-before-paired duo of saxophonist Colin Stetson and bassist Bill Laswell didn't have dynamics - it very much did - but that the dynamic range could be described as being between "mournful sense of doom" and "crushing apocalypse". The duo's extreme sonic architecture was built on Laswell's diverse low-end, alternating between buoyancy, aggressive fuzz, watery tones and languidly funky lines, wherein Stetson's vertical wall of sax tones and his black metal-inspired throat screams filled the middle and the top. Indeed, the two were a great measure of contrast - Stetson aggressively circular breathed and fingered his acoustic contributions in real time while Laswell slowly and carefully selected looped and distorted bass tonese. Yet they shared much of the same aesthetic - a pulpy, horror-movie-esque sense of despair with a preference for the visceral.