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Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Oùat - Trial of Future Animals (self-released, 2023)

By Taylor McDowell

I have to admit… I haven’t enjoyed an advent calendar since my youth. That is, until Oùat released Trial of Future Animals this December. Twenty-four tracks, released one-by-one between December 1 and December 24.. It was reason alone to celebrate this holiday season.

I recently had the fortune to review another fantastic piano trio, اسم [ism] (consisting of Joel Grip, Pat Thomas and Antonin Gerbal). Bassist Joel Grip anchors yet another fantastic trio in Oùat alongside Simon Sieger (piano) and Michael Giener (drums). Trial of Future Animals is Oùat’s third release - following their debut, Elastic Bricks (Umlaut, 2022) and The Strange Adventures Of Jesper Klint (Umlaut, 2022). Both are superb records and come highly recommended. Elastic Bricksshowcased the group’s own compositions - replete with strong penmanship and collective performance. Strange Adventures was a complete reimagining of the late Swedish pianist Per Henrik Wallin’s 1998 album Coyote. Utterly brilliant and enjoyable - plus it really introduced me to the Swede’s music.

Whether navigating original (and often spontaneous) compositions or interpretations of others’ works (“...perform[ing] the music of Ellington, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Elmo Hope, Per Henrik Wallin and Sun Ra…”), Oùat succeeds in reimaging/reframing the jazz tradition in a way that is refreshingly modern. If you consider each member’s history, then this comes as no surprise. Throughout Griener’s 40-plus year career, he has weaved through a variety of jazz-adjacent projects (recently filling the drummer’s chair in Berlin’s Die Enttäuschung). Multi-instrumentalist Simon Sieger embraces a multiplicity of instrumental roles and styles, playing tuba and trombone on a recent Art Ensemble of Chicago recording . As for Joel Grip, many readers might be familiar with his roles in اسم [ism] and أحمد [ahmed] - the latter group expanding upon the music of jazz bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik.

On Trial of Future Animals, the trio presents a collossal feast of art. Twenty-four tracks - over 4 ½ hours of music - poetry/text by Sam Langer accompanying most tracks, and individualized track artwork by Grip himself. A genuine riches of a multimedia creation. If you listened to Elastic Bricksand Strange Adventures, you get a sense of what this group is capable of - but only an inkling of what they accomplish on Trial. The playfulness is still there, as are the wickedly fleet improvisations and arrangements (honestly, just listen to their rendition of Wallin’s Vastgota Jazzen). But new faces emerge over the course of Trial’s 24 tracks - recorded over a span of three years. We hear new combinations of instruments, a couple of guest muscicians, as well as new and disparate influences. As Joel described in an email interview (spoiler alert - read the full interview following my own ramblings), “Yeah, it's a trial of the future animals since we're always testing who we are.”

It all begins with the clash of a gong. Bells and bass and - this is new - singing! The Gong Song is an enchanting and eccentric tune (with, I presume, Simon chanting “ding dong! it’s the gong song!”) that concludes in rapturous joy. Space Boogie transitions between a series of galloping and grooving ostinatos, with some superb soloing from Simon. Invigorating! Red Horses and Cows doesn’t gallop as much as it trots (literally). Michael lays down a convincingly equestrian cadence, and as the piece grows into lockstep groove before traces of Charlie Haden’s Song for Che emerges. Alice,a personal favorite of mine, is a slow blues with a barrelhouse-style theme and a mid-section where the three engage in a beautiful bluesy improvisation.

Elsewhere on The Long Dance we find Simon on organ playing theme that repeats throughout before being nearly washed out by the drone of the organ’s chords. Sudden and Här Kommer Greta, both composed by Joel, could have fit well on Elastic Bricks (Grip also composed most tracks on that record). Both pieces feel like short jazz vignettes spiced together, yet the transitions within each song seem so seamless - doubtless due to the incredible musicianship of each member. Supreme , Something with the Moon, Breach the Gap all uniquely feature Simon on flute (a wood flute, from the sound of it); Joel even pulls out a guimbri on Breach. These pieces have a distinct, quasi-meditative feel. However, ever the tricksters, Oùat is quick to eschew the ritual and leap right into a rowdy, swinging coda.

On Instable Mates, Oùat is joined by Rudi Mahall on clarinet for a deconstructed rendition of Benny Golson’s Stablemates. Here, Mahall/Grip alternate with Sieger/Griener playing the theme in pairs in a way that makes the original tune almost unrecongnizable. The group sprawls out on Oùat with Bex Burchand Praise Machine(at 26 and 43 minutes, respectively). The former improvisation includes guest percussionist Bex Burch who contributes xylophone to the assortment of percussive clinks, klonks and Simon’s gutteral chanting. Praise Machine is a beast of free jazz improvisation. It swings and throbs with energy - showcasing the groups talents to string together exciting and mercurial themes.

Imagine: it’s Christmas Eve. The 24th and final Oùat track has been released. Hold the Boldmight be best enjoyed in one’s evening robe with a cup of spiked eggnog. It’s a subdued swinging affair with Simon’s raspy crooning to close out a lengthy and marvelous record. Trial of Future Animals succeeds on many levels: outstanding musicianship and camaraderie; inventive composition and the reinvigoration of the jazz tune; and plenty of humor. Broadly speaking, Oùat might be compared to other retrospective, yet forward-facing jazz groups (that makes sense, right?). Think ICP, Sven-Ake Johansson, or Sun Ra Arkestra, Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity, etc. Oùat dances with the spirits of jazz past, only their footwork is a bit newer and unusual. They still find plenty of fodder in the standard song format and jazz’s rhythmic inventions; anytime a group is willing to approach these traditions from a fresh angle and a wild idea, I’m all ears. Trial of Future Animalsis easily one of my highlights this year.

Trial of Future Animalsis available as a digital download , with a CD on the way (containing a selection of six tracks).

A selection of Joel’s art from Trial of Future Animals

Below is an unedited interview with the members of Oùat. The writer extends his many thanks to Michael, Simon and Joel for time and thoughtful responses.

TM: First of all, what is in a name? Oùat (Once upon a time) - where did that come from?

Simon:A band always has to have a name nowadays, because people like symbols so much, and because incertitude is completely out of fashion. Otherwise I think I'm more of a "no name" person. But then, you just HAVE to choose a symbol that will summarize in a title what the band is about. And what if the band is about asking questions? Can you call it what? Is "what" a collectively shared symbol that leads everyone to make the two major actions that a name is supposed to trigger : 1. "Oh man "what" is such a cool name, I need to check out this band!" 2. "I can't believe the way this name resonates with the essential act of questioning as founded by Socrates, they must be interesting!" I think the answer is no. Because "What" is too common and doesn't catch the eye. I mean, just pay attention and you hear questions all day long that you don't even bother answering ("What's up?" is my personal favorite). And "What" just goes unnoticed these days, along with "how" and a few friends of his, they're cancelled out of the culture of certitude that says "who" is right and "what" is wrong. I wanted to save "what" so I disguised him into OÙAT. Secret initials to Once Upon A Time, there were people whose lives were only hanging by a question mark. People who saw and expressed questions everywhere. Once Upon A Time, these questions are immortal, started like a star starts, like a chord played by Ellington or Sun Ra, like a poetry by Erri De Luca. These questions are started and they are forever always-never answered. They live in the time of Once Upon A Time, the time of dreams that come true, and they stay open, warm, and welcoming, patiently waiting for the next person who will want to wear them like an old suit in modern times. We want to wear old suits and make them speak the question of Once Upon A Time, because Sun Ra and Ellington still got a lot to say that they haven't said, and because we're ready to take the risk of being wrong.

TM: In the time since Elastic Bricks, how would you say the group has changed compositionally (if at all)? Are the group's musical emphases the same as they always were ("..sets out to explore the idea of a jazz standard song format of today.")?

Michael:For Elastic Bricks, we used predetermined material that helped us develop a specific band sound. In addition to compositions by Joel and Simon, we have used material by Duke Ellington, Hassan Ibn Ali, and others in concerts. Working with the compositional approach of Per Henrik Wallin has led to a freer approach to the written material and freed us from the limitations of the traditional roles of our instruments in dealing with song material. Certainly, wonderful compositions can still be written today in the traditional AABA (and other) forms, but we feel that today's world requires a different approach to playing songs, especially in the age of manufactured aesthetics. The addition of voice and drums has led to a much more direct engagement with lyrics and song forms that we are currently exploring. As Archie Shepp said, "A song is not what it seems.”

TM: Speaking of compositions - I couldn't help but notice the absence of compositional credits for most tracks on Trial. Were they improvised instead?

Michael:Wherever we played compositions, the composer was mentioned. All the other tracks were improvised, except for the lyrics, which were mostly written by Simon and Joel just before recording.

TM: In "The Strange Adventures Of Jesper Klint" you focused on Per Henrik Wallin's Coyote. What about Wallin's music - specifically that record - spurred the interest to do this recording?

Joel: Good morning, Free Jazz enthusiasts, bloggers, conversationalists, and bass players around the globe!

Thank you for raising this beautiful question about the Strange Adventures of Jesper Klint.

What motivates us to play this music?

Where does this inspiration originate?

Well, perhaps I am the person to tackle this question.

Growing up in Stockholm, I had the pleasure of meeting, conversing with, listening to, and exchanging ideas with Per Henrik Walin in person.

To me, his music revolves around questioning—not just societal norms and other genres, as he was extremely critical.

He's not merely a great music critic, but also a literary critic, philosopher, etc.

But he's also music. I mean, through his music, he interrogates who you truly are. And I believe that's what truly fascinated me as a young jazz music and improvisation enthusiast. He believed, or at least that's what I gathered from him, that while working on sound, you're also working on your own singualrity. Improvisation, essentially, is a means of self-expression and being true to yourself. And I think that was his primary concern, and what he felt was lacking in society's dialogue on individuality. Many talk extensively about identity and authenticity, emphasizing their importance, but ultimately, it's often just another form of selling something. Actually working on sounds—that's working on your own sound, your own voice, and asking yourself who you are by simply playing a note. A kind of condensed sudden and vanishing imprint of you. Disappearing as soon as it appears. I think this questioning inspired me to follow a lead away from Sweden. As if I was lacking a certain friction to delve into this musical search in Sweden. He made a notable record called, or perhaps known to me and a few others, "A Farewell to Sweden," with another significant figure for me, Sven-Åke Johansson, in a duo bidding farewell to Sweden in their own way. A symbolic recording to talk more about on another occasion, but mainly straight forward and uncompromising thought added another layer of introspection to his sound, which was incredibly inspiring. I had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with him briefly, and then suddenly he was gone; he passed away quite rapidly in 2005. So this music we're playing is crucial in the way that it connects to my first very strong and intimate discoveries within music. I always had this music in my head and listened extensively to that record, "Coyote," but for the 15 years after Wallins' death, I couldn't find anyone to play it with, until Simon and Michael came along. It suddenly became evident that we had to do this, partly to introduce other people to this master player, but also for ourselves, to question our own sound, etc. His music is quite a journey and can be genuinely beneficial in challenging your own creativity so that you actually progress further. It's an adventure, and that's why I think we retained that title, "The Strange Adventures of Jesper Klint," which is actually the title of an adventurous book from the 1940s or 1950s. What more is there to say?

In making that record also, I'd like to add that it's not solely, I would say, an homage to Per Henrik Wallin. It's there, of course also, to acknowledge, reintroduce him into jazz history, and so forth—to make people hear his music because people outside of Sweden don't really know about him, and even within Sweden, he's a relatively obscure figure. But it's more an homage to ourselves, I believe. And I think this is what he wanted, and what I felt from him when I met him: but who are you? So it's an homage to celebrate our own sound and our own ability to, even in this disintegrating postmodern world, find our own uniqueness in our own sounds and embrace it. So we celebrate that, making music that we love, connected to history, connected to where we are now, and connected to the future. Per Henrik embodied that, but I think he struggled to communicate it because ultimately, in the end, he didn't play much. I think improvisation and the rich, diverse history of jazz have something to say about this, and we can learn a lot from it in our efforts to progress not just forward and sideways but also downwards, but ultimately, it's about moving and not stagnating. And it's an homage to not stagnate.

TM: A notable facet of "Trial for Future Animals" is the inclusion of Sam Langer's text and Joel's track artwork. How would you say the recorded music was intended to interact with these other works?

Joel: Good evening, free jazz bloggers and free jazz enthusiasts worldwide. Welcome to the exploration of Oùat. Today, we're going to delve into the question of the connection between music and other forms of expression like writing and painting. How come in the Trial of Future Animals, we choose to work with some texts and Joel Grip's paintings? Well, I can probably offer a fairly foggy but also quite personal answer to that. For me, music, theater, text, or drawing—springs from the same well. It's all part of the gestural essence of life, I would say. Making music, for me, stems from a bodily connected thought gesture. Let's just say that sometimes, this thought, connected to the body, can be expressed in the shift of a hand. Sometimes, I happen to hold the bass, and it makes a sound. Sometimes, there happens to be a paper underneath my hand, and it draws a line. Sometimes, my feet move on the dance floor, and it's kind of the same origin of thought. So I don't see a reason why we should not connect or why there's even a question about the interconnectedness or lack thereof between words and music, etc. The words are music, the gesture in painting is music, and at the same time, in the music, there's movement, there are words. I find it intriguing. I also think, like Lester Young, working on standards, the standard song format—maybe we also have that question in this interview. Why are we still working on the standard song format? I think we are because in the standard song format, yeah, we have these texts, and in our songs, even though they are 17 minutes long, they convey a sense—they include the sense of the word, the sense of the gesture on paper, or the sense of a dance, in the sense of communication, of embracing the world, basically. And let's see here, ladies and gentlemen, I dropped my feather, but where are we? Where is my thought, and what more can we say? Oh, yeah, we were talking about Lester Young. Like he said, it's important to know the lyrics and understand the sense of the melody in order to make a solo on it and to develop the song. So for me, what he's basically saying is that the words are melodies, and melodies are words, and we essentially converse with each other. We connect with each other. Maybe this questions more why things are so separated today. Why are there main visual artists who have no idea who Charlie Parker is, or why are there main musical artists who have no idea who Frank Walter is or any other significant visual artist? They don't necessarily have to know their names, their birth dates, or their favorite color, but it's about being aware and accepting that it all stems from the same root. So yeah, I think this separation is really bothersome and unhelpful—the fragmented approach to creativity, working on one instead of the whole. But of course, playing the bass as a whole or playing the piano, the drums, or writing a text, but including that listening—it's about listening, embracing, and feeling the whole. And yeah, so we can learn from Lester Young. Also, talking about Charlie Parker, he said when he came onto the scene, he was like, "Who is this mother f*cker playing my sh*t and playing their sh*t and playing his own sh*t?" Yeah, so I mean, we play Parker's sh*t, we play Lester Young's sh*t, we play whoever's sh*t, and we play our own sh*t. We embrace the light, we embrace the thought, the written word, the gesture on paper which can turn into a word or sentence, the idea of composition, the idea of interpretation, the idea of the search, the idea of swing, the idea of friction and popular musics. Without opposition or without differences, we don't have friction. And in the standard format, I think you had all of these things. But thanks to the Afro-American musicians taking this format and developing it, kind of stealing it and turning it into their own sh*t to use Lester Young's words. So what we are doing is turning all these things—the words, Sam listening to us, and imagining a music in words, my images or someone else's images, and our music—we turn it into our own sh*t. It's a way of digging. We're digging into these different forms and formats, and by digging, we also create our own piles and holes to fall into and jump off of. Yeah, it's a trial of the future animals since we're always testing who we are. Since we are animals, and since we can magically look into the future and look back onto how we looked into the future, and this maybe it's a kind of handicap, but we should work with that, our imagination, the handicapped imagination, the handicap of being an imagination, to embrace that lovingly. Failing and falling—that's what we are doing.

Oh, another thought adding to that is that basically, the interconnectedness—not just the idea of it, but the fact that we are connected to various things, ideas, and ways of doing—is actually the groove. The groove can only exist when you accept this and partake in these various elements. If it's me connecting to Simon or Michel or someone else, or me connecting to the written word or a gesture on the dance floor, this connection has to exist. It all exists. And this makes it groove, I think. And that's, I believe, what Lester Young is also talking about. You have to understand, or feel, the friction of doing to create a melody or expand on a melody. You have to include and continuously reconnect, and you have the groove. It's quite something else, and today, we miss a lot of that kind of groove. We have isolated grooves, but ultimately, they're a bit like AI—they groove for themselves in a very low bit artificial way. They don't move me. But the fragmentation, the fragmentation of the post-world, the living in the post-world, the idea of that—I think it's a bad idea. And reassembling these scattered pieces makes it groove, but you have to accept many things, accept that precision is not about being exact. It's about being open to the play around limitations and knowing when to end. So the groove is about taking risks, about embracing the unknown. So these texts and these drawings, for me personally, are there for us to groove better.

TM: I loved the incremental release of "Trial" - a musical advent calendar. Whose idea was that? And I hear there might be a CD in the works - are you still taking track suggestions for that?

Michael: As we wrote, Trial of Future Animals is an album in transition.

We had recorded a lot of new material, which makes up the bulk of the recordings, but the main idea was to release a new track for 24 days last December.

So we went back to previously unreleased recordings that we liked too much not to release.

It was also meant to be a statement about giving generously and in excess.

We just finished a proper CD with a selection of 6 tracks (from the 24) that best represent our current way of making music.

The recordings have also been remixed, because with a daily release it had to be done very quickly.

The CD is currently being manufactured and should be ready in the next few weeks.

TM: Any upcoming tour dates for Oùat?

We play on May 7th in Marburg

and on May 8th at the Jazzfest Eberswalde

And on October 11 in Budapest at OPUS/BMC

And we are trying to book more concerts on the way to Budapest.

There are more concerts planned, but it's not concrete yet.