How to better classify an improvisational unit such as the Necks? Since the Australian trio perform their music on instruments associated with jazz — acoustic piano, double bass and drums — they tease us with whether or not they ought to be aligned with the severely rule-bound world of jazz at all. Whatever the case, it is hugely satisfying to hear the group’s lack of reverence for the form’s many hallowed conventions. With a healthy, punky boredom about all that, the Necks poke all ye olde shopworn swinging jazz a certifiably new bumhole.
Even in 2018, both jazzers and we great unwashed others must still contend with the age-old structural conventions of jazz. The issue is the format: Though it’s not etched in stone, the foundational shape of an extended jazz piece generally requires a statement of a theme played over a set pattern of chord changes; cut to a series of solos from each player over another or the same set of chord changes; then a return to the main theme and the recurring chord changes. No, it’s not that magnificent things haven’t been done with jazz’s tried ‘n’ true structural equation — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, end of story — but it can be tediously predictable, and maddening, coming from a music that is ostensibly about musical freedom. It’s been done to death, and there’re few surprises left.
In semi-recent times, the most advanced (though not influential) break with overripened jazz structure within the context of improvised music was the ’60s-‘70s German band Can’s development of “spontaneous composition,” roughly improvisation of new structures rather than improvisation over set structures. This produces an infinity of interstitched contrapuntal music in which it can be said that, simultaneously, everyone solos/no one solos. Perhaps Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics system of tonal/rhythmic organization achieved similar results; in any event, this way of making music requires very careful listening by the players — and in the Necks’ case actually doesn’t require careful listening by audiences, though it does reward profoundly for close attention paid.
The Necks create spontaneous compositions by focusing on long-form development in improvised pieces that discover or stumble upon musical events along the way. In the process this tough-sounding, forceful band also skirts its way around the rigidities of minimalism and the general coldness of systems music. Body comprises just one track, which clocks in at 56 minutes and 40 seconds. It’s music of no-bullshit elegance, and here in part is what one might glean from its fertile imagination:
The piece opens amid an expansive tonal landscape. The sprawling vistas intrigue, sonically presenting anticipation of opportunities ahead. There is superbly ambiguous drama in this scenario; there is, blessedly, no foreshadowing of doom or death. The forward-driving “groove” slowly introduces mutation, with more prominent sustained electronic chords in the background, which then floats a tad more up-front. The bass sound in this context is ideal, where it colors the atmosphere, and it’s not a rhythmic instrument (that’s the drums’ role). This ringing bass note neither propels nor shoulders the overall rhythm, preferring to wash a musical scene with an enjoyably hazy, indistinct feeling. We become aware by this point that each of the trio employ high precision in the small variations of their parts and in the precise placement of their chosen notes. In their minimalism, they connote a lot.
At 15 minutes or so the piece abruptly changes gear, as the piano drops out, an electronic chord drone flies in the face, and there are small electrical keyboard flashes; the effect is a suspended air, a hovering. (If the Necks achieve such abrupt ambience-shifts intuitively, then it’s very impressive, though it’d be interesting too if they’d chosen to edit a long piece into this particular shape.) This scene dissolves into single-note bass sustains and non-swinging (a compliment) drum thwack, with intermittent low-level electronic sounds, irridescent keyboards and wondrous loads of airy space; reverbing piano one-chording re-enters, with a glistening organ-keyboard buddy in tow.
We are at 24 minutes now and there has been a brusque break into loudness and a relatively harsh, driving 2/4. But then, an urgency like this was seething under the whole enterprise right from the git-go. All these tough-guy drums and badass bass sounds — when it bursts out, it is very much like classic rock-style tension/release, an effect enhanced timbrally among the other instruments. But what are we hearing, exactly? The ears start to play tricks after longish exposure to this extended piece’s tone-smearing amid distant, guitarish squawks, power-saw sounds, all slaloming off the rhythm section. The smearing effect is a byproduct of jealously holding notes on musical instruments so that an overlapping of tones creates harmonic distortion, related to the warming-up effect of analog/vinyl music reproduction.
When tones are smeared to create other masses of sonority, this will possibly introduce unfamiliar emotions — you’re feeling something but you’re not sure what it is. And at 32 minutes we’re in the thick of it: The intensity is extreme, the textures ever thicker, hotter. It’s just relentless, but equally is it dispassionate, which is fascinating; in fact this music is not about e-mo-shuns — it might be “about” a train barreling ahead, or it might be about an ultra-disciplined spareness that opens the musical ear. Whatever the case, at 39.48 it shifts quickly once more into a substantially different space where chimes, bells and other tinkles dart through clear, simple left-hand piano notes and intermittent percussive explosions. By 49 minutes, we have arrived somewhere; it is an unknown territory of percussive hallucination, bells, electronic sounds. At 53.29, it has become orchestral in the way the tonal mass coalesces.
When we arrive at Body’s destination, it is with a real sense of having made a journey to a new, excellently strange place. As with, say, the Indian ragas, you might initially not think you’re going to be able to handle the patient curiosity of its development, or its lack of familiar sonic signposts. But the Necks are persuasive; the ears adjust, and you, listener, change.
The Necks: Body (full length)
John Payne writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat; he is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).