What a sumptuously, startlingly beautiful evening this was. I’d waited many years to see The Necks live; surprisingly, I don’t believe they ever made it to Vienna in the 11 years I lived there. The closest I would have come was seeing drummer Tony Buck doing stickwork as part of Heaven And, a fleeting and now defunct aggregation that brought the house down on the 2010 Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf.
The Necks seem to have attained a certain cult appeal in recent years as the improv outfit it’s OK to like. In this they’ve undoubtedly been buoyed up by the enthusiasm of kindergarten-level critics such as Swans’ Michael Gira, whose fanboy support for The Necks a few years ago reached such eloquent heights as: “they’re loosely described as jazz music, but they’re not…they don’t improvise in the sense of jazz noodling, they create grand waves of sound.” Comically incapable of discerning The Necks’ place in a continuum of which he knows nothing, Gira’s dot-to-dot analysis entirely fails to engage with those elements which make The Necks great: history, continuity, the sense of a tradition lovingly renewed.
It’s noticeable, when watching The Necks play live, that they hardly if ever make eye contact with each other. During their two 45-minute sets at AMR, Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton may have passed the odd glance between them, but if they did I missed it. And pianist Chris Abrahams certainly never turned round to look at his bandmates, remaining resolutely forward-facing throughout. This stands in sharp contrast to people like Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Anthony Braxton, for whom visual cues seem to act as an important way of moving the music forward. For The Necks, as for AMM, the music is shaped exclusively from the players’ listening and responding to the conversation that unfolds between them.
The first set began with gently probing piano figures from Abrahams, soon to be joined by restrained double bass from Swanton and understated percussion from Buck. Initially restricting himself to pizzicato, Swanton was practically strumming the strings high up the neck, his dark bass tones in rigorous counterpoint to Abrahams’ swirling note clusters. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the group began to ratchet up the intensity. Buck used the hi-hat relentlessly, its glistening timbre falling into the spaces between Abrahams’ hypnotic chords and Swanton’s gorgeous arco work. Focused on the middle range of the keyboard, his face an image of rapt concentration, the pianist fired off streams of jazzy figures with Keith Jarrett-like conviction.
Buck and Swanton kicked off the second set in subdued fashion, with the bassist issuing lonely single notes around the drummer’s softly brushed snare patterns. It was to be several minutes before Abrahams joined in, the unnerving clarity of his piano once again upping the tension in the room. The music gradually began to surge and flow in vast oceanic currents; shorn of individual histrionics, it packed its punch instead through the profoundly telepathic understanding between the musicians. Swanton found an addictive rhythmic pulse and rode with it, while Buck’s increasingly forceful activity laid the groundwork for a beautifully sustained and satisfying climax. Rarely have I been so engrossed at a concert, so intent on savouring every note, every phrase and every moment of silence.