The Necks bring interstellar improv to Bishopsgate

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Part of the ‘City Sessions’ programmed by the Vortex that bring creative music to the heart of London’s financial district, this gig comes with layers of irony. The venue is a stone’s throw from where international traders turn over monopoly money on a daily basis. They might not see The Necks as a safe commercial investment. Yet the room was packed solid.

Put simply, the Australians have a following, and it has been built over some three decades of recording, touring and developing a musical vocabulary that consolidates a substantial fan base, even though their long-form pieces would not suit daytime radio play lists that merchant bankers presumably tune into when they need a quick adrenalin rush.

Speed is not the key variable here, though. The whole point is time and space, or rather the ability of pianist Chris Abrahams, double bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck to alter perceptions thereof. Each set of roughly 45 minutes appears to go by with relative briskness, although tempos steer clear of frantic allegro. Control and precision define each tangential ‘chapter’ of the extended improvisation, which is anchored in a kind of gradual, incremental development whereby phrases re-harmonise or acquire a new rhythmic direction without clearly telegraphed intentions. Repetition conceals transition.

Gently rolling figures from Abrahams’ keyboard bathe in the swirl of Buck’s cymbals while Swanton often slides between Spanish flamenco strum and Indian tanpura drone to boldly emphasise the raga implications of much of the performance, though just occasionally his fretted notes are swallowed up by the sparkly dulcimer-like reverberations of Abrahams’ left hand. Maybe the point is that the low end is to be felt, not always heard. There is more than one moment when the players reach an impasse and the building dynamism halts, but the nudge forward arrives with admirable subtlety. Buck might do nothing more than alternate four and five phrases on the tom, and the judder reinforces the shifting weight of Swanton’s bulky open notes. Sound quality, sharp and substantial, counts as much as ‘chops’.

If the first set grooves the second is more ambient-like, the bass assuming a greater melodic role among washes of percussion and piano, making the point that the group has scope within its distinctive modus operandi. Drawing the line from Asian music to serial composers, The Necks purvey a stealthy trance that feels as electric as it does acoustic, with an underlying aesthetic that is jazz rather than jazzy. They are more a one-off band than another piano trio.

– Kevin Le Gendre