I had the pleasure of seeing The Necks live in concert last Monday as part of their 30th anniversary tour. For those that don’t know, the Necks are an Australian improvisational jazz trio, consisting of pianist Chris Abrahams, Bassist Lloyd Swanton and Drummer/Percussionist Tony Buck. Their sets (and sometimes albums) are entirely improvised on the spot, so the concert I saw on Monday existed only for the night. Perhaps it’s contrary to the spirit of the evening that I’m attempting to capture some of that experience for you, but if music doesn’t inspire you to think, feel and even write, then what the hell’s it for?
Café Oto is a strange venue of which I am fond. Tucked away in a small street in Dalston, it appears both cosy and raggedy. A dimly lit open floor with fold-up chairs surrounds the musicians’ area. It’s not a stage – it’s not even raised – simply an open area in front of the chairs, allowing you to get so close you can see the sweat on their brow. The bare walls are draped with pastel-shaded canvas sheets. Loose electrical wires on the floor tempt feet to stumble. The bar serves a fine selection of Japanese beverages, such as plum wine, sake and shochu. The windows look out onto the deserted street. There is no soundproofing or shade, and occasionally people peek in from the street, curious to investigate the nature of the gathering inside.
James, my longtime friend, Necks fan and plum wine enthusiast joined me for the gig. We arrived early and got seats right in front of Chris Abraham’s piano. After about an hour of drinking and chatting, the trio inconspicuously took to the front. After a few moments of silent reflection, Chris Abrahams began with some repetitive, descending piano notes. The pattern of repetition continued for perhaps over 10 minutes as the other band members joined in with repetitive variations on their own instruments. Tony Buck scraped his sticks across the snare, causing a shuddering, disjointed sound, and eschewing the traditional rhythm-keeping properties of his instrument. Lloyd Swanton similarly used a bow for his upright bass, dragging it agonizingly across the strings and adding to the calculated, deliberate progression. Suddenly, as if freed from its shackles, the rhythm shifted, the piano spilled into a crescendo of arpeggiated notes, and Swanton’s bass thundered like the chug of an old steam engine. There was an eerie telepathy to this transition. The thunderous rhythmic drive continued on for perhaps 10 minutes, with subtle gradations in melody, before Swanton and Buck took a back seat to Abraham’s piano vamping, winding the piece down with grace, yet tension. Some enthusiastic applause preceded the announcement that there would be a short break, during which we managed to grab another drink.
The second set began in a freer manner. Once again the rhythmic purpose of the drums and percussion was cast aside in favour of calculated squeaking and rattling noises, using techniques I unfortunately couldn’t witness from where I sat. But it sounded extremely unsettling. Swanton used his bow again to interject single notes of an isolated, jarring character. Abrahams’ eerie piano playing, full of reverb, was reminiscent of the modernist piano works of Pierre Boulez or Charles Ives. The playing at this point was mysterious and brilliant. Not jazz, not classical, simply music that perfectly fit the dark and mysterious environment of Café Oto. Buck began to add some bells and kick drum patterns while Abrahams picked one single mid-range note to focus his energies on. The repetition started interesting, became dull, became interesting again and suddenly, the piece changed. Clusters of piano notes appeared instead of the one, and then it was the bass’s turn to offer the repetitive thud of a single note. The music then shifted from the mysterious to the unsettling. Dissonant chords were repeated; the bass continued its nihilistic march. The drums and bells continued their thudding, creating a mood that reminded me of the last part of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme; a piece of painful yearning and infinite mystery. Of course they weren’t done, though. Mid-range piano notes shifted suddenly to lower bass notes. Tony Buck’s spiritual meditations turned effortlessly into a rapid jazz rhythm. Lloyd Swanton’s bass brought both swing and menace with its “walking”” character. If what we had before was spiritual meditation, this was a spiritual crisis. This was music for a chase scene in a film; for the drug-induced paranoia of an addict. The sudden intensity from what was before made this, for me, the highlight of the set. It was explosive. As before, the intensity could not sustain for too long, and the band took us out on a wave of free-form rhythms and some of Abraham’s most purely melodic piano playing.
James and I stuck around long enough to witness the crowds disperse, and found an opening to speak to Tony Buck, the drummer. Buck had no idea what he had just played, and he initially didn’t even remember using the bells in the second set. He explained that their improvisation is a collective effort, with each one playing off each other’s ideas. He acknowledged this got easier over the years, and the freedom of playing with people for so long allowed them all to reach new and unexplored territories.. He then excused himself for a glass of wine. I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t well deserved.