Jazz needs albums like this. Youth Oriented eschews everything that we usually associate with the jazz couture and replaces it with pop culture motifs. The cover art reminds one of the angst ridden, whiny boy images favored by Korn or Limp Bizkit. The song titles seem like Frank Zappa cast-offs. The first sound you hear on the CD is akin to a Speak and Spell with gastritis. The first musical notes tend to remind the listener more of early '90s art-rockers Morphine than Thelonious Monk. But make no mistake. Youth Oriented is a jazz album. And a damn good one at that.
Now of course, all pop and no jazz would make Jack a very, very dull boy, and Happy Apple pays off in spades. This is the group's fifth album, and they seem to get stronger with each outing. They take John Coltrane’s fire, Jaco Pastorius’ low note gymnastics and P-Funk’s penchant for a whacked-out good time, and throw it all in a blender... and the concoction is intoxicating, indeed.
Things get started off with a bang on the title track. Michael Lewis’ tenor line lays nicely on a sliding ostinato from bassist Erik Fratzke and a bunch of percussive wackiness courtesy of Dave King, also drummer for The Bad Plus. Some Coltrane-esque blowing gets from Lewis sets the pace for the album, which is pretty intense from beginning to finish. "Green Grass Stains on Wrangler Jeans" is a nice swinger in 5/4 time; even despite its unconventional time signature, it's the closest thing to mainstream jazz on the album. "The Landfall Planetarium" puts the trio in overdubbing heaven, with everyone overdubbing on something. It may very well be the album’s most schizophrenic moment, blurring the lines between rock and jazz without sounding like fusion for even a second.
It sets the stage perfectly for "Salmon Jump Suit," which evokes the vibe of the music Jaco made with Hiram Bullock and Kenwood Dennard. "Drama Section" is the mellow moment of the album – at first. It quickly gets into some rubato blowing which makes things quite uneasy. "The Treetops of a Bad Neighborhood" recalls Radiohead in its deliberately lo-fi recording of King’s funky beat and Fratzke’s nimble bass line. "It Will Be" nods its cap toward mid-period Weather Report (again, Jaco’s influence is felt heavily here), and "Crème de Menthe Quasar" is a 13 minute song that seems to go through at least two or three moods per minute. It’s almost too much to take.
The entire album, at 62 minutes, almost seems too short. One of the best aspects of Happy Apple is that they work on instinct, and their instincts almost always pay off. They’re a hard band to categorize, but an easy band to enjoy. Like many of the great albums that are coming out right now, Youth Oriented is tapping into a segment of the jazz population eager to find something to call their own. The energy levels are high and the songs are infectious and original. The improvisations recall the past of Coltrane, Shepp and the high points of '70s fusion, while looking to the future as well. Youth Oriented is easily the group's best album to date. Highly recommended.