Drama Theatre, May 30


Chris Abrahams. Photos: Jordan Munns.

Yes, they can still surprise us 36 years on. That shows just how nimble The Necks’ original conception of slowly-evolving long-form improvisations was, also appealing to an infinitely wider audience than free improvisation would usually attract.

Having played all six venues at the Opera House, here The Necks were back in the Drama Theatre, the letterbox-shaped proscenium-arch stage – such a challenge for theatrical productions – being no impediment to presenting music. Perversely, in fact, it’s one of Sydney’s best concert venues, but virtually never used for that purpose. The phenomenal artistry of Tony Buck (drums), Chris Abrahams (piano) and Lloyd Swanton (bass) was complemented by the warmth and clarity of the sound and the unwaveringly sympathetic lighting, the latter beginning with an effect like lightly falling rain.

Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton. Photos: Jordan Munns.

As usual the trio played two improvisations, each about an hour. The first began with a haze of impressionistic piano and melodic drumming, before the bass added tension to the prevailing beauty. By then the spell was cast. That’s an aspect of this band that can’t be copied: each player can be ostensibly contributing relatively little, yet collectively they brew a voodoo that keeps 500 people bewitched, hanging off each note, because if you lose concentration you could miss the moment when the pattern changes. It’s like staring at the night sky, waiting for a shooting star.

The members are unerring in their instincts for moving themselves in and out of the foreground, so no instrument is ever dominant or secondary for long. They also arrive at denouements as naturally and inevitably as a train arriving at its destination.

The second piece began with Buck using a thumb piano to create aural sunlight. Swanton slotted into this, whereas Abrahams chose a parallel rather than an intersecting trajectory, playing snaky lines juxtaposed against the implied African groove. The ability to endless unlock new places to go is hallmark of the band across its lifespan. Sometimes you can hear them reaching for ideas; more often these flow like water from a tap. Exceptional.