“Masters of their own musical language of long-form improvisation, each night they step onto the stage with no pre-conceived ideas of what they will play – they and the audience will go on a sonic journey that is created in the moment and in that room.”
This year is The Necks 30th anniversary. They have ploughed a unique musical furrow over that period, releasing fourteen studio albums, one soundtrack, and four live albums. A recent box set from ReR Megacorp collects eight of those releases into a useful history, and for those with enough money, and time, it is a perfect summary of work to date.
Wikipedia describes the trio as “experimental jazz” which is accurate to a point. Some times they can be as far removed from jazz as chalk is from cheese. I guess the confusion might be that the composition of the band, Chris Abrahams on piano , Tony Buck on drums, and percussion , and Lloyd Swanton on double bass, is the traditional jazz trio line-up. But this is not the Bill Evans Trio, and to be clear, it’s not E.S.T. either. They are far more than jazz, in the same way an improvising collective like AMM or Supersilent are distant from the traditional confines of the genre, but are labelled as “jazz”. Bands like this tend to be shoved into that corner of your local record emporium where the “difficult” music is put. Jazz roots are there, but the trio, over that thirty year time period, have invented a new kind of music. That the classical music writer from The Daily Telegraph reviewed their sold out three day residency at Café Oto in Dalston perhaps says more about the genre defying nature of this band than I can.
A November gig from the trio in Manchester is therefore not to be missed.
This is my second time of seeing them. They tend to make it a habit of playing the Band on the Wall when they are in Manchester. The last time was three or four years back, and the memories are strong of an exceptional performance. So it is with some anticipation I venture down to Manchester’s premier live music venue for their latest gig in the city.
The insistent rain and cold air attempt to dampen my spirits, and the dark, puddle strewn, corners of Oldham Street are not the most inviting of prospects on an autumnal Tuesday night. Despite the inclement weather the place is full. The Necks always pull a large crowd, there’s a couple of seats on the right side of the room with a reasonable view, albeit obstructed by one of the BOTW’s ornate pillars. The Necks performance routine is well established. They will play two sets, both generally between 40 and 50 minutes in length. Very much in the same way that their album releases are generally one uninterrupted track of improvised music the live sets are complete pieces. This requires a lot of concentration and focused listening and my only gripe of the evening is the latecomers who spill into the room after the gig has started which allows the sound of the bar to filter into the room and disturb the delicate opening melodies that Chris Abrahams is developing. There’s also a hipster type, with several layers of clothing, and a back-pack, who decides to float around the room in an annoying fashion. But to counter that aberrant behaviour you close your eyes and lose yourself in the music. If I were the Band on the Wall I’d curfew the room at the set start time to stop the distractions when a band of this type is playing.
So, as I say, as it begins, Abrahams, picks out a delicate melody, and I begin to wonder if there has been as shift to a more traditional musical form than hitherto experienced. These thoughts are misplaced of course, and soon dissipate as Swanton uses his bow to create sonorous notes. Buck is not engaged for the first five minutes but slowly comes into the fray with light brush work. What follows is fifty minutes of repetition, with hypnotic surges of organically developing sound. At any one time I am recalling something akin to mid-70s Tangerine Dream, a particularly complex part of a Van Der Graaf Generator opus, a free jazz trio, or industrial music from the early 80s. You have to stop yourself and remember that this wonderful collection of sound is being created by a traditional acoustic piano, double bass and drum kit, albeit that the drummer has any number of little percussion tools at his disposal. The structure of a Necks set is both familiar and different at the same time, a quiet reflective start, a build up to a complex, dense, and often cacophonous, middle, and then the fall away to a quieter coda.
You have to remind yourself it is all improvised.
The remarkable thing is the complete lack of ego between the three musicians. They are separate but together. Each individual addresses their own contribution from their part of the stage, but the years of working together have clearly forged a collective endeavour which is equal and complete in its delivery.
The second set is perhaps a little more adventurous than the first. Swanton starts things off with an off kilter, almost Beefheartian riff, indeed Mark Boston had been stood just to the right of where he is several years ago when I saw The Magic Band at the same venue. Possibly some sort of ghostly Van Vliet dust is floating in the air? Buck is creating alien pings with some brass cymbals which recall the opening of Echoes by Pink Floyd. He soon moves into a different area, and his contribution to this set is more overt. The lead role in the sound swaps between the three musicians. Abrahams uses the piano as a percussion instrument, as Buck creates melody with his battery of percussion, and Swanton floats between them creating sounds that I did not think were possible from a double bass. Time becomes an irrelevance as you lose yourself in this music. The rhythm is more hypnotic in the second set, almost trance like, the music evokes memories, there’s a waking dream quality to the whole experience. At one point the music builds into a maelstrom of sound that is indescribable.
The Necks latest release is called Vertigo which after this nights experience appears to be an apposite title. They are completely unique, they are always different, but the process and the invention is familiar, so there is a backbone to the music which allows focus on and absorb what they do. You are caught in stream of musical ideas which takes you to a point of transcendence and then gently brings you back down to earth.
A previous gig demonstrates ably the band in full flow