Struggling to find the right words with which to describe a performance by the Necks, a writer can’t be faulted for veering off-road. The long-running Australian improvising trio, which celebrated its 30th anniversary with a three-concert series at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn February 22-25, consistently lives up to the hoary adage “more than meets the eye” – and, as compared to its impressive string of 18 albums, “more than meets the ear,” too. Live, believe me, the group’s impact encourages gonzo.
One word that comes to mind, useful despite its limitations, is elemental. The fundamental building blocks with which Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton, and Tony Buck work are, respectively, piano, acoustic bass, and percussion – a canonical jazz-trio configuration since basically always. Yet there’s little traditional about the Necks; elemental serves as well as any word to describe the fundamental energies manifest in a given performance.
Thursday’s concert offered what appeared to be a prime opportunity to figure out just how the Necks work: a solo set from each member, followed with a group performance. Two more trio sets would follow on Friday night; during Saturday’s show, which I was unable to attend, disparate guests – Andrea Parkins, Ned Rothenberg, Nate Wooley, David Watson, Ira Kaplan, Kato Hideki, Shelley Hirsch, and Joshua Abrams – would enter the Necks’ matrix throughout a continuous six-hour span. (The trio had also participated in a Q&A and performed for an Issue Project Room benefit concert on Tuesday.)
Instead of isolating the Necks’ constituent building blocks for easy perception, what the solo sets demonstrated was each player’s striking individuality, and the completeness of the alchemical transformation when the three combine. From behind his drum kit, Buck fashioned atonal murk on electric guitar, while at center stage a robotic carousel dragged beads and mallets hung from spindly arms across gongs and other noisemakers scattered on the floor.
Abrahams, after an opening of post-Romantic contemplation, eased into a whirligig figuration that spun in place with quiet insistence and intensity, while a rumbling cloud of sustained tones and harmonics swelled over and about it. Driven but never manic, the performance swelled to an iridescent apotheosis. Swanton’s set evoked organic process: one gently bowed tone or hard-plucked note splitting into two or more; simple components and gestures gradually rendering complex harmonic networks.
The trio set, too, opened with Swanton plucking thick notes. Buck jingled a cymbal and rattled wooden beads; with Abrahams’s tentative entry, what transpired evoked first the time-free opening of Hindustani raga, and then a fleeting moment from a circa-’70s Pharoah Sanders LP looped to infinity. A transitional passage, still quiet but more emphatic, fused a Debussy-tinted fog with continual metal-percussion clangor; a climactic stretch, obliquely yet emphatically bluesy, ceded to an enigmatic stuck-groove conclusion.
Friday night brought two further sets: each around 40-something minutes long, neither especially resembling Thursday’s collective action. The first began as wind-swept elegy; at the 11-minute mark Abrahams introduced a fleet, rippling figuration, and then sustained its cyclonic swirl while varying its register for a ceaseless half hour. With Buck and Swanton in tremulous accord, the result was super-heroic: at once physical and transcendent, close kin to Charlemagne Palestine’s similarly somatic euphoria.
Abrahams started the second set gently and sweetly, a modal melody coursing across the keyboard’s expanse at a leisurely pace. Swanton introduced a monotone pulse; Buck added daubs and splashes of color with his petite gongs. Passing through areas of noisy clatter, clangor, and abrasion, the players reclaimed the initial sensation of melancholy poise with what felt like considerable effort, even duress, lending the obsessive tremolo and hissing, splashing cymbals that dominated the home stretch a sensation of hard-won triumph.