The Necks © Holimage

The Necks – the Australian trio of Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams – are totally different from a ‘repertoire’ ensemble, such as a classical orchestra, or a rock band playing its hits, or a jazz group playing standards. But this also puts them in a special category of ‘creative’, non-repertoire music, since some of the most cutting-edge acts in the fields of contemporary ‘serious’ music, improvised music and progressive jazz make something that is structured and sounds broadly similar from day to day, from gig to gig. The Necks are predictable only in their unpredictability, and in the simple, self-imposed rules of their approach, rules that have allowed them an unsurpassed level of freedom and flexibility in the music they make. Superficially, at least, they share many characteristics with that most stable form: the traditional line-up of piano, double bass and drums, the ‘jazz piano trio’ whose basic approach evolved from the 1940s onwards through the example of groups such as those led by the pianists Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland and Bill Evans. And here they are, playing at a jazz festival that has featured many great piano trios over the years, and will undoubtedly feature many more. The appearance of the Thecks on the programme for the 2015 Jazzfest Berlin – where they share the bill with the trios of Giovanni Guidi, Julia Kadel and Tigran Hamasyan – marks an appropriate moment to examine the Australian band’s position within the contemporary jazz environment, and to investigate the evolving art of the piano trio.

Anyone paying close attention to jazz in recent years will be aware of the renewed prominence of the piano trio as a format that has bucked trends and frequently resisted the flow of the music’s mainstream. As the great soloists and bandleaders of jazz’s classical period died or faded away in the late 1960s and 70s, the new strands – fusion, smooth jazz, free improvisation, neo-classical modern, acid, postmodern – generally employed larger ensembles, were focused upon a single performer, or were driven by technology. The piano trio was temporarily left in the shadows.Many new keyboard instruments emerged in the postwar era. These included the Hammond organ, clavinet, Rhodes piano, Moog, Prophet, DX7, Yamaha CS80, plus instruments made by Oberheim, Korg, Roland, etc., and many different analog, digital and sampling synths. Between them, the new devices brought an entirely new tonal palette to the music, exploited in the 1960s and ’70s by a range of artists from Ray Charles to Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Larry Young.

For touring musicians and bandleaders, the new generation of keyboards offered a life-saving answer to the unpredictability of badly maintained club pianos. However the ubiquity of electronic keyboards and faux pianos created a concomitant yearning for the sound of a ‘real piano’ at just the time that the classical world was waking up to the fact that digital recording – spurred by the CD boom of the 1980s – could capture the instrument’s dynamic range and timbral subtlety to a degree hitherto unknown.

Perhaps inspired by the example of Keith Jarrett, a new generation of pianists and piano trios emerged to take the moral high ground of ‘pure’ jazz trio artistry. Jarrett, the late-1970s high priest of acoustic piano music, had famously rebelled against his years wrangling uncooperative electric instruments while playing with Miles Davis in the early 1970s. His meticulously constructed albums and concerts with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, whether freely improvised or based on jazz standards, made piano trio jazz that was fresh and inspiring within a tradition that could be traced back to the work of Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian at the beginning of the 1960s.

Brad Mehldau established a place in the 1990s resurgence with his series of albums titled “The Art of the Trio”. In the past decade or so many other contenders emerged or were rediscovered, including Marcin Wasilewski in Poland, Jef Neve in Belgium, Brian Kellock in Scotland, Emil Viklický in the Czech Republic, Michael Wollny and Julia Hülsmann in Germany and Fred Hersch, Marilyn Crispell, Geri Allen and Kenny Barron in the US. Jason Moran’s Bandwagon forged a distinctively contemporary path while tipping a hat to the great piano trios of the past. Senior figures such as Abdullah Ibrahim, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Paul Bley and Martial Solal benefitted from the revival of interest in the form while the emerging bands enriched and invigorated it, helping to develop new audiences and opportunities for the jazz piano trio as an art form.

A second thread in the piano trio revival was the emergence of composer-led trios that showed some allegiance to contemporary rock and post-rock, and to modern serious music. These include E.S.T. (the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, whose glittering career came to an abrupt end with the tragedy of Svensson’s accidental death in 2008), the Bad Plus, Christoph Stiefel, the Neil Cowley Trio, the Tord Gustavsen Trio, Phronesis (led by the Danish bassist Jasper Høiby), the trio of the Armenian-born pianist Tigran Hamasayan, and the cutely named English band GoGo Penguin (who began their career with a sound and feel very close to that of E.S.T. but have since developed considerable authority). This approach, in which the intellectual and compositional rigour demanded by the acoustic piano as an instrument maintains a healthy relationship with the collective improvisation that still makes it unarguably ‘jazz’, has given rise to many other bands that are not strictly piano trios.

Some of the aforementioned bands have built substantial careers and surprisingly big cult followings. An early example of this was provided by Medeski Martin and Wood, a highly original trio whose dogged touring earned them a huge fanbase within the American ‘jam band’ world. MMW often cite Duke Ellington’s 1963 album “Money Jungle” as a key inspiration; the compositional drive and combative energy of that one-off project – a trio with Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach – make it an interesting antecedent to composer-driven trios such as E.S.T., and you could also cite the influence of Ahmad Jamal, still active at 85, whose music had a crucial impact upon Miles Davis in the 1950s.

The Necks © Holimage

But none of these trios, young, old or in between, is remotely like the Necks. The typical performance by the three Australians is a continuous improvisation of around an hour. They somehow grab an idea out of the silence before they begin, and spin it into a coherent piece of music. There is a musical and emotional logic that ties each note to the next, and which makes the final minutes the inevitable conclusion of the band’s first utterances, but you would be hard pressed to describe that in the usual vocabularies of jazz, rock or classical music criticism. Terms such as ‘hypnotic riff’ and ‘virtuosic soloing’ and ‘tumultuous crescendo’ can seem too banal to represent what The Necks do in a typical performance (which of course is always atypical). The content comes directly from the craft of the players, their relationships with their instruments and each other. It’s post-electronic, post-digital (perfect CD-length) but fundamentally acoustic.

Each album made by The Necks creates a distinctive sound world, one that might have defined an entire career for lesser bands. The debut album “Sex” (1989) has an easygoing lope that is both mesmerising and utterly relaxing; with its catchy riffs and hooks, it sounds like a hit single that ignored the three-minute rule. “Hanging Gardens” (1996) felt like another highly commercial record, and almost earned The Necks a contract with Universal Music (the deal fell through, leaving a tantalising question mark over that segment of their career).

Several of their albums are live performances, which taken together give a rich impression of the vitality and variety of their performances. The four-CD set titled “Aethenaeum”, “Homebush”, “Quay”, and “Raab” (2002) – drawn from three concerts in their home country and one in Austria – is a particularly good introduction to their work. Of course, none of these four tracks sounds like “Sex” or “Piano, Bass, Drums” (1998), and not one piece sounds like another in the set. Instead, you hear something unfolding in time and audio space created from the infinite creative permutations of … piano, bass and drums.

If you ignore the jazz associations of that instrumental listing, you could place The Necks’ music somewhere in the wider world of minimalism – as close to the sculpture of Donald Judd and the architecture of John Pawson as to the music of Steve Reich. There’s a ‘truth to materials’ that defines the sound, and the purity of ‘play for an hour’ evokes the instructions and exhortations made in conceptual works by artists and composers such as Sol LeWitt, John Cage, Tom Phillips and John White. The Necks have occasionally played shorter tunes, but for mainly practical reasons – the short cues required for their soundtrack to “The Boys” (1998), or the two 21-minute tracks on “Mindset” (2011), designed to fit on each side of their first vinyl release.

Yet The Necks’ studio albums place them in the recording traditions of rock rather than those of jazz or serious music. “Drive By” (2004) is a studio creation, with many overdubs and a fastidiously detailed final mix which creates an ecstatic listening experience – you can see why such a work might excite admirers of so-called ‘krautrock’ bands (Can, Faust, etc.) as well as younger devotees of electronically generated trance music.

You can’t imagine The Necks producing a simulacrum of “Drive By” or “Chemist” (2006) live, any more than you could have imagined Miles Davis’s 1970s band recreating “In A Silent Way” (which incidentally bassist Lloyd Swanton has cited as one of their original inspirations). Their mastery of the recording studio is all the more impressive for its restraint. If their live performances are truly site-specific, responding to the resonance, reverberation and vibes of particular venue’s walls, floor and ceiling, then The Necks’ studio albums could be described as ‘site-mimetic’. They create an alternative sound space inside the listener’s headphones or speakers.

I have argued that The Necks’ music stands alone, that it floats pleasurably free of the two main strands of contemporary jazz trio music, which might crudely be described as (a) work in the Bill Evans tradition or (b) heirs to “Money Jungle”. But it is possible that in the future a third strand might emerge: piano trios working within a new tradition initiated by the honest, uncompromising performances of the Necks.

Deutsche Übersetzung in der taz-Beilage vom 17. Oktober 2015 auf unserer Website. The article has been published in German translation in a supplement to taz. Die Tageszeitung on 17 October 2015. The full publication is available on our website. The Jazzfest Berlin 2015 takes place from 5 to 8 November 2015. On 7 November 2015, 15:00 The Necks will perform at Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche Berlin.