Review: The Necks at Café Oto

The Necks at Café Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved

The Necks
(Café Oto, 4 and 6 November, first and third nights of 3 day residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Being present at a Necks concert is akin to watching an artist painting. In Café Oto’s intimate surroundings we were in the artist’s studio, observing the process at very close quarters. Each set started with a blank canvas. There was absolutely no preconceived route, no rough preliminary sketching out of a musical idea between the trio. It was a mystery tour – for the musicians as well as the audience for which the only given is the point of departure. As pianist, Chris Abrahams, explained in their recent interview in The Wire: “… sometimes we as musicians have a similar listening trajectory as the audience, we’re equally surprised by what happens.” And the outcomes, in each of the two sets on their first and last nights, were uniquely beautiful and moving improvised sonic works of around forty-five minutes.

The Australian trio have been playing together for 25 years and have established an open-ended modus operandi, with a finely tuned understanding and a sophisticated vocabulary that draws on their initial jazz roots and has evolved with their individual participation in improvisation and jazz networks. Drummer Tony Buck is based in Berlin with its thriving free music scene, Abrahams is a frequent visitor to Europe and bassist Lloyd Swanton’s experimental and jazz projects are mainly in Australia.

An unintended pattern emerged on both nights, maybe partly the trio’s response to feeling so comfortable with the venue’s cosy, near-domestic ambience and sympathetic acoustics. The opening sets were each steeped with an abstract calm and sense of mystery evoked through incremental explorations. The concluding sets had a touch more discernible accessibility and a looser flow.

From points of silent repose they began each night with solo extemporisations, by Swanton and Abrahams respectively, and gradually built up the layers, worked at the surfaces, and discovered textures and patterns which were defined, explored and redefined with grace and sensitivity.

Their opening set introduced the nautical resonances which populate their Silverwater album (review HERE) and, seated close to Buck, it was fascinating to watch as he rattled shells and shakers to evoke the spirit of Oceanic vistas and something of the atmospheres of John Tunnard’s surreal painted seascapes. As the momentum built up there was a sense of being immersed in the dense, spatial fluttering of bats in a cave – dark, monochrome, lightly tactile.

The second night had the focus initially on Abrahams, who insistently pursued a serial riff that became the structure that Swanton and Buck would work round. Their attention to the finest details imbued the progression with a spellbinding, other-world quality. Buck’s near-silent micro-percussion, at times played out with taps on a circular saw blade, and Swanton’s dreamlike phrasing, shaped the set with a natural, meditational flow.

Abrahams’ lyrical piano, with shades of Cage’s early, pastoral piano works, introduced their second set of the residency, and brought on a lightly rhythmic lilt supported by Buck’s clattering of small implements and polyrhythmic pedal work. Harmonium and celeste might have been in the room as Abrahams bent the timbres and a cyclical imperative dominated as flute and electronic tones were summoned up by entirely acoustic means.

To close the series, Buck imposed an energised, tumbling crash to shake up the whole room, leading to a transcendent stream of beats, off-beats, waves and washes which, again, suggested infinite sea views and an endless landscape – maybe a subconscious reflection of the Australian continent world view. Abrahams, implacable, deft, suddenly ceased playing then the rejoined the fray with a fragmented boogie style. A harmonic, three-chord progression took over and a stormy climax built up to subside with relaxed finality. Swanton’s blissful smile spoke for all three on stage, and those privileged to share the experience.

On 11 November BBC ‘Jazz on 3’ will be broadcasting the first set from the second day (5 November) of The Necks’ Café Oto residency.

On 21 November, BBC ‘Late Junction’ on Radio 3 will be broadcasting from the session The Necks recorded with Evan Parker on 6 November at BBC’s Maida Vale Studios.

Richard Williams was invited to the recording session and has written this up in his excellent music blog HERE.

The Necks new studio album, ‘Open’, is now on release (CD only).

Categories: miscellaneous

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