There are only a handful of certainties when pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck, and acoustic bassist Lloyd Swanton, aka The Necks, take to a stage and begin to play. First, they have no idea what's going to happen. Second, it's going to happen until it's done. Third, it'll be a while.
"We seem to have naturally accepted the time span of 45 minutes to an hour as being the length of a Necks piece," Abrahams says in an e-mail interview. "We arrived on this length very early on—within months of forming the group—and it has remained the same."
Such a constraint goes against the typical dogma-prodding credo of most freely improvised music, but The Necks are not a typical
free-improvising group. The Australian trio has spent more than 20 years conducting extended group improvisations that mine the vast uncharted middle on the spectrum between moment-to-moment free improvisation and the more structured "jamming" of jazz or rock. The way the piano lines and the pulse of the rhythm section vary and interact at hypnotic length has drawn comparisons with both the compositions of Steve Reich and the furtive jazz of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way. Blending improv and compositional rigor, once
Abrahams, Buck, and Swanton spontaneously arrive at an array of motifs for each performance, they work with them until they're exhausted (the motifs, not the players).
"We would never finish a Necks piece due to time constraints—it has to make formal sense to us," Abrahams says. "Once a piece is up and running it has a trajectory all of its own, seemingly."
Such extended improvisations require extraordinary players with an innate musical communication, which describes The Necks to a tee. Abrahams and Buck actually grew up together in the same suburb of Sydney and all three played together in various lineups as part of the city's jazz scene in the early '80s. They came together as a trio in the late '80s, as Abrahams puts it, "to try and get away from the soloist/backing model."
They've been at it ever since, and the consistency of the trio's lineup and its focus have yielded rich results, as captured for posterity on a series of CDs that vary from the jazzy first draft of 1989's Sex to the almost techno-like uptempo throb and sizzle of 1999's Hanging Gardens to the oceanic shimmer of 2001's Aether to the unsettled pianistic flutters of 2007's Townsville. Each is quite different from the others, but they all sound like The Necks. "We have always thought of ourselves more as a band rather than as three individual musicians coming together and it was important for us to develop a group sound which has a constancy," Abrahams notes. "We have always wanted to have a ‘Necks sound' and a Necks way of playing."
And so over the past two decades, Abrahams, Buck, and Swanton have each built impressive careers individually, but they continue to come together for a month or two now and then to record and tour together. (The Necks have only played in the United States once, a 2001 concert in New York.) If The Necks are somewhat less in demand, commercially, than they might be given the often ravishing beauty of their improvised epics, Abrahams for one seems fine with that.
"We've never really pushed the band hard," he says. "Maybe we would have been further along sooner if we had done this, but we didn't. Like our music, we have taken our time about things."