Strolling through the brisk Monday night air and into the Blue Whale, a tasteful, tiny jazz bar strangely located on the third floor of a shopping courtyard in Little Toyko, a special kind of anticipation coursed through the club. There’s always a level of mysticism at play when you’re hanging out in jazz crowds, but if you ask me, even classifying what Australian trio The Necks do as jazz seems more related to the impression of seeing an upright bass on stage than to the actual sounds the group has been conjuring for the past 30 years. This gig at the Blue Whale was the opening night for the group’s first U.S. tour in five years, and the first of two Necks shows going down that very evening, as the venue had added an additional set to accommodate how rapidly the first one had sold out. As I slid onto a plush, ottoman-style chair with a cold glass of water in hand, the band graciously sauntered onstage, took their positions, and allowed for a brief moment of silence to hang before plunging their arc into motion.
From the moment pianist Chris Abrahams began plinking down a silky, plainspoken motif, translating a century of Reich and Riley and La Monte Young into one progressively cycling chord, the hole-in-the-wall club immediately ascended. As the rhythm section of Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton calmly stood back and observed (eyes closed of course), Abrahams’ non-melody held a gentle yet firm grip, emanating a peaceful, pastoral aura that nevertheless portended the deep cloud of unknowing soon to emerge. It didn’t take long for the trio’s innate sense of time-bending to set in, and before I could even put my finger on what was happening, Swanton and Buck had entered on bass and drums, each finding their own rhythmic response to the endless theme they had found themselves in. Without losing their concentration or continuity for a moment, the band drifted through an elusive passage of moods both apocalyptic and serene, each riff gradually and naturally emerging from the one before.
It was easy to become lulled into a kind of waking sleep. The group were doing so much work on their end, carving out ideas in real time that investigated planes both mental and physical, that as a listener it almost felt as if I could relax and observe their study with a balanced remove. Even thinking about the amount of physical strain it must take to pull off this type of set is unfathomable — let alone twice in one evening — and it was fun to see how each individual member of the trio tackled such an adventurous style (Swanton’s vigorous bass playing was the most outwardly emotive of anyone’s, while Buck and Abrahams were all focus). As far as I could see, Buck didn’t even touch the snare, the kick drum, or anything besides his cymbals for the first 30 minutes of the show; yet still he managed to wring out an evolving rhythmic pitter-patter as steady as it was constantly in flux.
As Simon Chandler so eloquently put it, this disparity between stillness and motion is at the core of The Necks’ music. As their cycle smoothly came to a peak and effortlessly drifted back home, the trio’s approach to repetition seemed in constant dialogue with itself, less an endless series of restatements than one fluid idea executed in slow motion from start to finish. No matter their level of dissonance and sheer force, the group never abandoned their intrinsic sense of tenderness, and experiencing their craft in a live setting is healing in the same way that submerging oneself underwater can be. As we made our way to the parking lot, sharing our experiences of shutting our eyes for long stretches of the show, my companion described the performance to me as being “like an ocean.” The Necks tackle a heavy pilgrimage with their music, a harmony between controlled dignity and unrepentant chaos, that above all leaves the impression with both the audience, and seemingly the performers, of being wholly and completely humbled.