Minimalism in music has taken many different forms, from the pulsating futuristic megaliths of Steve Reich to the relentless omnipresent drones of La Monte Young. Outside the academy, the possibilities include the locomotive vistas of Neu!, the spacey wistfulness of Windy & Carl, the cerebral ambiance of Eno and on and on. Whatever the shape, the effect of musical minimalism is nearly always the same—it creates objects out of sound. The constant rhythmic and melodic repetition (and the exceedingly gradual harmonic development) of a piece like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians creates a musical thing that the listener encounters in much the same way she might look at a sculpture or a building or some other three-dimensional object in space. Listening to music of this sort involves examining with the ears a single sonic object from a multitude of interrelated perspectives. Of all the things that help to understand Australian instrumental trio the Necks, this idea of musical minimalism is indispensable.
The Necks evade easy categorization, not because there are no reference points for what they sound like but rather because they are the only ones who do what it is that they do. For the sake of easy explanation, the Necks are a jazz piano trio—Chris Abrahams, piano; Lloyd Swanton, bass; Tony Buck, drums—but beyond instrumentation their link to jazz exists much more in a devotional subservience to improvisation than it does in reverence for any easily recognizable jazz forms or traditions. In the 15 or so albums they’ve released over the last 30 years, there are no tunes to speak of, no heads to come back to after soloing. Instead there are long, often album-length tracks that feature the repetition and gradual development of the minimalists, perhaps in this case more Terry Riley than Steve Reich and, in the universe of jazz, much more In a Silent Way than Kind of Blue.
Actually, in the jazz realm, Unfold, this latest album from The Necks, feels like it could belong to the spiritual ancestry of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, one of the finest artifacts from the Impulse!-era of modal, meditative jazz. The very first track on Unfold, “Rise,” leans heavily in that direction, with Abrahams’ searching, introspective piano wandering freely among the curious soundscape that Swanton and Buck assiduously create for him. (Like many of The Necks’ releases, Unfold is at present only available as a double LP, in this case with four unnumbered sides. The digital version provided for this review follows this track order: “Rise,” “Overhear,” “Blue Mountain,” and “Timepiece.”)
Though there is some similarity to the laid-back astral-traveling groove of Alice Coltrane, there are also worlds of difference. The Necks are no strangers to groove—see Sex or Piano Bass Drums—but one of the prime directives here appears to have been to avoid groove altogether.
On Unfold, each track is distinct from the others. At the same time, all four pieces appear to follow the same basic rules. Abrahams’ piano (and, on the track “Overhear,” organ) is thrust into the foreground, continually unspooling melodic lines within a space that encompasses both thoughtfulness and virtuosity. Meanwhile Swanton and Buck are tasked with maintaining for those lines a backdrop that is static yet frenetic, fixed yet constantly shifting. Their playing may not so immediately impress, but it is no less virtuosic. What Swanton and Buck do here requires a tremendous amount of concentration and, more impressively, physical endurance. They are in constant motion, whereas Abrahams is left free to alternately roam and rest among their landscape.
There is a clear effort on the part of all three players to avoid even a recognizable meter to which the group as a whole might relate. Each part exists in the same space but in its own rhythmic time, clearly avoiding any individual figure that would give the impression of a particular time signature or rhythmic trajectory. It’s a difficult feat to pull off. In many instances it’s made possible with repetitive gestures that continually speed up and slow down, with a sort of free-floating, localized micro-rubato. (The organ playing at the beginning of “Timepiece” is exemplary.) In effect, it gives the music a shimmering quality, as if the listener is looking at an image reflected in a large body of unsteady water, ripples radiating out from many different points simultaneously. Though each piece has its own mood, its own colors and its own overall impression, the album as a whole gives this same sense of pleasant clamor, representing in sound these sorts of watery collisions upon which a larger picture is made to vibrate. It’s thoroughly mesmerizing and among the Necks’ best work.