Piano, Bass, Drums, and Something in the Ether: A Guide to the Music of The Necks

Is it possible for an improvisational act to craft a definitive musical statement? Or does the very nature of its art compromise this pursuit? The music of the Necks both transcends any notion of the definitive and renders the question moot. 

For over thirty years, the Australian trio has amassed a body of work that is amorphous, always in flux, and changing with each new studio recording or live performance. To listen to the Necks is to embrace the ephemeral and reject the absolute. No single album or performance captures the music’s entirety. But assembled together, all those individual moments—stored as physical music or kept in the memories of spectators—make up something monumental. What the hell: something definitive. 

The trio’s music incorporates and defies every genre tag that can be leveraged at them. Avant-garde, minimalist, ambient, trance jazz, drone, free improv, classical…the Necks reduce the algorithm to tears. Although the content of the music is perhaps impossible to nail down, its form is more or less easily stated. 

The Necks’ music is improvisational, unplanned—guided by mood and texture rather than composition or pre-ordained shape. The performers are vessels for the whim or pulse of the instrument, or perhaps the performance itself. You feel as if you’ve stumbled unwittingly across something; you’re a witness to a private ceremony, a stowaway in the hull of a ship that moves of its own accord, whichever way the waves happen to break.

The Necks have grown to be such a monolithic institution in experimental music, you might be forgiven for thinking they all came wailing out of the womb in the same hospital wing, straight into piano trio format. While that’s sadly not how things happened, the true story of the group’s formation does have its mythic qualities. The trio was conceived as a behind-closed-doors improv workshop, with no intention of performing publicly. The lineup was as follows: pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton, and drummer Tony Buck.

Each of their musical lives had rippled across Sydney’s jazz scene, like concentric circles in a pond—for years, until, ultimately, they converged. Buck and Abrahams grew up in the same suburb of Sydney; Abrahams and Swanton met at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and played together in a small jazz ensemble called the Benders (which sometimes included Buck on drums). The three began holding practices at the University of Sydney, where they were overheard by a member of the university’s staff, who offered them a spot in an afternoon concert series. From then on, public performance was a major component of the group’s existence. But those first private moments of artistic communion were etched into its fabric, and remained as time went on.

Sex, the trio’s first album, functions as a manifesto in musical form. The band’s winding improvisations shimmer and flash, over 56 minutes of breathtaking acoustic jazz. The album perfectly typifies the central idea behind the group’s music: take a simple musical figure, stretch it every which way, see how it bends and contorts, but never let it break—never completely abandon it. Dissect it, rip out its insides, observe its makeup, find its outer extremities, the different modes it can live in—if only for an hour. But, of course, what point is there in establishing rules if you can’t upend them? 

On the group’s second release, Next, these ruminations are stretched across six separate tracks, one bleeding into the next, with guest instrumentation creating slight undulations in musical terrain. It’s one of just a few of The Necks’ releases that contains more than one track, other notables including: the soundtrack to “The Boys”; Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab (which has four tracks that all clock in at over 40 minutes), Chemist, and Unfold. Next takes the minimal fare of the previous album and sprinkles on a little confetti: repetitive samples, funky basslines, angular guitar riffing, lethargic pedal steel, and a half-hour opus to Pelé, the great soccer star. Finally, the trio pulls the tablecloth out from under the listener’s dinner on the aptly titled “World at War,” which slowly burns for an entire 15 minutes before boiling over into a barrage of keys and ambient noise.

In 1994, The Necks founded their own label, Fish of Milk, on which they released their third album, Aquatic. Over two half-hour tracks, Aquatic 1 and 2, they cobble together various improvisations, recorded in multiple studies over a number of years. The trio is joined on this album by Steve Wishart on hurdy gurdy (the instrument, not the Donovan song). Throughout Aquatic 1, there is a chilling undercurrent of scream-like noise that seems to come from some subterranean dungeon, made even more unsettling by the trio’s unyielding groove, which continues as ever, coldly unaffected. Aquatic 2 also revels in the listener’s unease, with slight changes in tone surfacing in the form of buoyant piano fills. The band’s next release, Silent Night, is rife with the sounds of homemade instruments, field recordings, dialogue, electronics and other elements that give it a concrete sheen. Bass and piano share the brunt of a single brooding riff that sounds as if Sisyphus joined Miles’ quintet. If Harry Lime were doomed to run through the sewers of Vienna for the rest of eternity, this would be the accompanying score.

Piano Bass Drums, released in 1998, is perhaps The Necks’ most overt recognition of its place in the lineage of great piano trios, as well as a winking shirk of such a legacy. In jazz, it might be said that the purpose of a piano trio is to have a dynamic unit, where musicians can balance anchoring melodic figures with improvisation via solos and rhythmic vamping. Contained within the Necks’ sound is an alternate reality, one in which jazz is rebuilt from the ground up. Namely, there are no solos — the players intuit each successive musical gesture together as one single, undulating body.

1998 was a busy year for the trio. In addition to releasing their first live album, they recorded a score for the Australian film The Boys. The release, which contains seven short tracks of 10 minutes or less, is a rarity in The Necks’ catalog, consisting of small vignettes with sly, often hypnotic choices in instrumentation. The late ’90s marked a steady buildup in the group’s stature. In 1996, Sex was released for the first time in the U.S. They began a series of annual tours in Europe. The Necks’ first American tour came in 2001. In 1999, Hanging Gardens, one of their most celebrated albums, was released. This is club music for the shut-in; one of their most consistently jarring releases. In the course of one 60-minute improvisation, the group seesaws between sinister and aggressive, their feverish playing reaching blistering tempos. 

Such subtle art can be deceiving. Each of the trio’s improvisations might seem more or less the same, on a conceptual level. But in such simple, repetitive, long pieces—over thirty years’ worth of them, in fact—there are minute variances in genre and instrumentation that denote the specific historical moment attached to their making. The resurgence of interest in ambient and new age music in the early 2000s brought on Aether, often held up as (if not a “typical Necks release) one of their best and most distinctive. The album is an  extreme example of a repeated musical phrase shifting and changing over the length of the piece. Each phrase — in the form of a crash of cymbals, keyboard drone, and drums fills—is buffeted on both sides by a thick layer of silence, alternately inspiring peace and unease in the listener. On their next album, Drive By, the Necks mine similar terrain, in a series of dramatic oscillations rendered with Eno or Cluster-esque complexity. Meditative keyboard washes, prickly drones, and muted percussion whisk you away to a cybernetic meadow of dazzling sound.

It may surprise fans to hear that the Necks rarely rehearse; they are all working musicians with their own solo careers and side projects to keep them busy. But when they get together, time, space, and sound all enter another realm. “I don’t play this way with any other musicians,” Swanton said in an All About Jazz interview in 2014. “We have three distinct voices, and we have complete trust in each other, and in our method of improvising. We always try to find the positive in every texture we collectively generate; to not be judgmental. We all trust each other to not push the music too fast, or into places that it doesn’t want to go. We know to stand back from the music and let it show us where it’s heading.”

Each member of the group is an in-demand session player, frequently dipping into musical worlds and excursions that contrast with the piano trio setting. These divergent paths, however, serve to add new splashes of color to each of the Necks’ outings. Abrahams and Swanton found early success as part of the pre-Necks group the Benders, playing on all three of their studio albums — one a year from ‘83-’85. Abrahams also released several solo piano albums, written music for TV and film, and appeared on albums by the Sparklers, Laughing Clowns, and others. Swanton has hollowed out his place in the jazz world, playing festival circuits, performing with small ensembles, and logging countless hours as a session bassist. Buck has made a name for himself in avant garde and experimental circles. He’s helmed and played in many other projects and groups, recently as part of a trio led by the great Ethiojazz pioneer Hailu Mergia.

And yet, new Necks releases continue to trickle out every few years. The late 2000s was a fertile period, during which they released Mosquito/See Through, Chemist, and the monolithic Silverwater, an animated surface of shifting sands, flickering electronics, and pulsating drones. Into the 2010s, the Necks continued to refine, or disassemble their approach. Mindset, from 2011, is a diptych of clashing temperaments: one explosive provocation, the other shrewdly disquieting. On Open and Vertigo, the trio makes its way back to its old stomping grounds: a single, lengthy improvisation—each album a labyrinthine series of stylistic detours, but with different destinations.

As is the case with much instrumental music, particularly environment-inducing soundscapes, once it enters the world, the music of The Necks takes on many, disparate lives. Writers listen while they work, visual artists paint to it, parents use it to put kids to sleep, drivers drink it in on long road trips, soon-to-be mothers play it on repeat in birthing centers, the list goes on. 

The group’s last release, Body, from 2018, contains shades of Hanging Gardens, with less emphasis on accelerated tempo and more on a steady, magnetic groove. For that album, the band also chose ten words they felt summed up the release’s single, hour-long track: episodic, driving, dynamic, layered, celebratory, soaring, rocking out, buoyant, sustained, and perfectly paced. On the surface, they seem like words that might be applied to any of the Necks releases. Maybe that’s missing the point; but perhaps it’s also a testament to the consistently nuanced nature of their playing.
Three, released March 27, is the trio’s 21st album. It’s intended as a kind of summation of the group’s existence—Three for the number of band members, tracks, and decades spent making music together. The album is of a piece with the rest of the trio’s discography. It envelops the listener in a cocoon of pure atmosphere, where the sensory is heightened, the performance totalizing. The three pieces vary quite a bit; taking you from stuttery, percussive grandeur to ambient dread to heaven on earth (supple, trance-like swells of gorgeous acoustic sound). On Three, the trio moves from weightless minimalism to propulsive groove, reimagining many of its pet themes. Each moment gives way to a successive one; and so it goes, let’s hope, for decades to come. words / h wheless

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