It is hard to know what you’re in for when sitting down for a performance by The Necks. No two shows are the same, with each a unique improvisation.
Formed in 1987, the world-renowned Australian band comprises Tony Buck on drums, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Chris Abrahams on piano. Their notable hour-long minimalistic pieces go to the heart of improvisational jazz, removing the structures of prescribed melody and harmony on which more traditional jazz relies.
For this concert at UKARIA Cultural Centre, Buck’s drums are positioned on the side of the stage, facing Swanton’s bass and Abrahams’ piano. The piano is placed in such a way that Abrahams has his back to Buck and Swanton; a curious choice, given that these musicians are working together to create a singular cohesive work.
Presented in the warm, honey-coloured, wood-clad space of UKARIA’s purpose-built performance venue, The Necks’ music is electric.
The night’s performance starts with gentle chimes. Small pentatonic piano figures timidly join in. UKARIA’s Steinway D grand piano is pin-sharp. Swanton’s bass begins, presenting glimpses of a building beat.
From here, the piece begins to slowly build as more unconventional sounds add to the mix. A thunderous rumble comes from Buck’s kick drum. He puts his hand inside the drum and drags a stick against its inner walls; it sounds as if it is coming straight from the ground.
These musicians know their instruments inside and out, finding previously unexplored nooks and crannies they can exploit. A bass is not merely a bass, but a vessel for textural ideas in whatever form that may be; strumming the neck with one’s nails or bowing in circles to create a toned scraping sound. Whines that would be at home in a horror movie are created by Buck scraping the rubber end of one of his sticks across a cymbal.
It feels as if you have experienced an act of magic
The nature of producing a unique improvisation means the music finds its home in the space in which it is created. On this occasion, the music has a deep connection to the gardens of UKARIA; the Necks appear to be a channel for the earth’s sounds.
The imagery created by their first piece is remarkable. Buck and Swanton create swirling thunder and wind, while Abrahams guides us through, calling for calm with small, cyclical motifs. The audience can feel the conflict of nature as its unrelenting power grows. Eventually they all meet each other rhythmically as the thunder eases away and becomes a march of post-storm reparation.
This music is all about layers and textures. Many concertgoers close their eyes to fully experience the wide array of sounds and images being created in front of them.
Debussy-like piano phrases introduce the second improvisation. The lush impressionistic sounds are a necessary contrast to the consistently unsettling work of the first piece. The music continues to build into chaos until resolution arrives through Abrahams’ offering of legato harmonic sounds and phrases. It begins to breathe once more as if after a sonic panic attack.
The conclusion is as dramatic as the sonically demanding climax as The Necks cease playing suddenly amid the chaos. It feels as if you have experienced an act of magic.
It can take some effort to get the most out of works such as this. However, those who surrender to the seasoned hands of The Necks and allow this music to wash over them will have a musical experience unlike any other.
The Necks performed at UKARIA Cultural Centre on Saturday.
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