Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Necks @ The Sage...

The Necks occupy a unique niche in contemporary music. Blending the instrumentation of a jazz piano trio with the rigorous attention to detail of minimalism, they forge a style that is both instantly recognisable and innovative. Each of their improvisations spring from small cells - rhythmic and melodic - expanding and interweaving without ever breaking out into settled music. The effect is to expose the listener to a very organic process of improvisation. A more abstract and soulful version of Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, this Australian trio are not only innovators but increasingly influential too.

Performances can resemble a journey, musical cells subtly shifting, new textures continually being added and waves of momentum released through collective crescendos. The effect can also be unsettling - apparently simple patterns will be subtly inverted, and drummer Tony Buck’s often machine-like time keeping can suddenly freeze, suspended. Undoubtedly tapping into something meta-musical, each performance has something magical and ritualistic about it.

Despite knowing the bulk of their recordings well, Monday night’s gig at The Sage, Gateshead was the first time I’ve caught them live. In the intimate setting of Hall Two, the group played two contrasting sets, both fully acoustic. The first sprang from a shimmering repetitive piano gliss, sustained and augmented over its lengthy duration by pianist Chris Abrahams. Full of overtones, it reminded me of Charlemagne Palestine’s exotica. Buck gradually worked from hand percussion to a full drum kit assault as the piece built hypnotically to the point of virtual meltdown, whilst Lloyd Swanton’s bass unsettlingly shifted the axis of this elusive improvisation. Winding the piece down with Swiss precision, their control and musical empathy was highly impressive.

The second set was something different again. Abrahams sprinkled bluesy arabesques to recall Horace Parlan or Mal Waldron over Swanton’s harmonically ambiguous drone. From there the trio once again took off on another absorbing flight, time passing by in a blur. It would have been unfair to ask a group whose performances rarely last less than an hour for an encore, though an encore would have been nice. This is the kind of music I could listen to all day, and if a way could be find to pipe it into public spaces as an alternative to ‘white noise’, the world may be a better place.

Straddling many genres – jazz, improvisation, minimalism, electronica, avant-garde –The Necks’ beguiling sounds stand out as a pinnacle of improvised music. Tying the process of improvisation to a solid aesthetic ensures there is no wasteful or dead time. The Necks are rare in this often self-indulgent form of music in that they never forget the listener – they seek to engage, not alienate. A lesson others could do well to heed.

Fred Grand

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