May was an amazing month for live improvised music in London, with three contrasting events highlighting the range and diversity of the music. Over the holiday weekend at the start of the month, the third annual Freedom of the City
festival was a showcase for the home-grown style of free improvisation, with the London Improvisers Orchestra providing one its of many high spots. Steve Beresford is one of the orchestra's leading lights and regular conductors, specialising in concerto pieces. As he has observed (when writing about Cranc) "Free improvisations are always, if they are any good, liable to capsize. But that capsizing potential is what makes free improvisation the genuine theatre that it is, a real time drama where people don't pretend." A new release on Emanem, from last year's Freedom of the City festival, The Gathering for John Stevens
is another fine example of this. As its centrepiece, it features three John Stevens vocal pieces, performed by an ensemble led by Maggie Nicols. As the pieces demonstrate, the late lamented Stevens was certainly no stranger to the risk of capsizing, nor is Nicols herself.
On May 14th and 15th, The Necks played two nights at Pizza Express. The Australian trio's music is all improvised, but its slowly-evolving, sensually-textured dynamic is in complete contrast to the music produced on the London scene. On the afternoon before the first show, I talked to The Necks, bassist Lloyd Swanton, drummer Tony Buck and pianist Chris Abraham, about this and other matters. The interview is below.
When the Midnight Sun tour arrived in London on May 28th, we were presented with another contrasting take on improvisation in the guise of Supersilent. The Norwegian quartet - Helge Sten (aka Deathprod) on electronics, Stale Storlokken on keyboards, Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Jarle Vespestad on drums - only meet to play concerts or to record; they don't rehearse or discuss their music. Their music makes heavy use of electronics, notably treatments and delay of Henriksen's trumpet. (A brief solo set from Henriksen - during which he single-handedly built a multiphonic, layered tapestry of sound, left one craving a much longer feature.) As with much improvised music, its direction is unpredictable; at the gig, Supersilent produced an adrenalin-charged noise storm that owed much to rock music. (At times I was reminded of late sixties Soft Machine) This contrasted dramatically with the more subdued, atmospheric mood of their latest CD release, Supersilent 6 (Rune Grammofon), one of the year's best so far.
Three versions of improvised music, all very different, all very good. Lucky us!
Interview with The Necks
All About Jazz: For a gig like tonight, what preparation do you do, if any?
Lloyd Stanton: A good night's sleep. It is completely improvised, so there is nothing to talk about.
AAJ: So when you go on stage, what happens happens. It is totally improvised.
Tony Buck: Whoever starts first, whoever gets the idea, kind of sets the agenda a bit for what's going to happen, but it is kind of good not to know. Having said that, we do go on with fifteen years of preparation.
LS: It will always sound like The Necks. We are not reinventing the wheel every night. Certainly we get into some familiar areas. But if that starts happening too much, we get bored with it and one or all of us will start pushing it in another direction, without having to say anything. It is just clear that, "We are not going to go there tonight, we are going to do something a bit different."
TB: We are always pushing the envelope, adding different approaches or techniques, timbres and stuff. We all do so many different things outside of this project that there is plenty of source material to be applied within that template or framework that is The Necks modus operandi.
LS: I feel that some of my other involvements are falling by the wayside over the last few years, as this band has been increasingly time-consuming. Certainly, it is not just other bands we play in; just the listening we do is always informing the direction of the music. I am certainly listening to different things now to what I was sixteen years ago, when the band started. I'm sure the other guys are the same.
Chris Abrahams: Yes. We're the same.
LS: We do have a framework, an approach, that doesn't depend on the material we use or specifics about music, even the style of music, in a way. It is just a framework into which to place all these different things. We don't dilute the concept at all, but it is really open to anything. There are infinite possibilities to add different approaches.
AAJ: But you only need to hear a few seconds to know it is The Necks. How do you explain that?
LS: I think to some extent the patient approach we have of not trying to force the music. The actual rate of change is very distinctive of The Necks. I think that does dictate the way things sound. We generally work with repeated motifs. Less so lately, we have been getting a little bit more rhapsodic in some of our improvisations. But they are a couple of elements, the rate of change and the repetition. And we have all developed a particular sound on our instrument, which may together combine to make a unique sound.
CA: It was always like that. We sounded like The Necks when we first started playing together. It hasn't changed a great deal.
AAJ: It sounds like it emerged fully formed when you first played together. Is that really how it was?
LS: It more or less did. We talked on the phone about some ideas we wanted to pursue, did some experimental playing together in private and it was pretty much happening straight away. When we started, we had no intention of it being a public band; it was just something we were doing for our own enjoyment. I think our method had very pure musical reasons. We got into world domination later.
AAJ: Did you know it would work before you got together?
CA: We played a lot together before The Necks. Lloyd and I played together in The Benders. (We played a season at Ronnie Scott's in 1985.) And we'd played with Tony a lot beforehand as well. So we knew how each other sort of played before we formed the band. But what we wanted to do was very conceptually based. I don't think we would have done it with any other drummer apart from Tony. This was going to be the band, and we knew these were the people we wanted in it. If one of us were to leave, that would be the end of it. I can't see us getting a replacement.
TB: We got the idea from different conversations and ideas that we expressed to each other at the time, while being involved in all these other different projects, that we were having similar frustrations or similar ambitions in musical terms.
LS: Sixteen years ago, we were all much more involved in the modern jazz scene. It has taken on a life of its own now, to the extent that we sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with being listed on the jazz chart. I know a lot of people hearing it wouldn't think of it as jazz. But I think you can trace it back step by step, and definitely there is no clear break anywhere in the link; it does actually go back to jazz originally, but...
TB: Music's about what it sounds like. In a way, The Necks sound like jazz but it's not really jazz to me; it just sounds like it.
CA: I don't think we have any problem being called a jazz band. Except we do sometimes feel that people who are very much into modern jazz and a tradition of soloists and rhythm section and ideas of virtuosity - the individual pitted against a rhythm section in the background - would be sort of disappointed. We feel that people who are more into that sort of thing, we don?t provide them with the kind of entertainment they are after. So the term "jazz" may be misleading from the audience's point of view.
LS: The modern jazz players in Australia that we have grown up with are all very supportive and enthusiastic about the group. I think some modern jazz musicians who may have read about us and come along would think, "When are they going to start? They've been playing for over an hour now! Where's the head?" But we do have a few fans in the international jazz scene, which is nice. Some people have really clicked with it.
AAJ: You fit the description "beyond category". There is nothing like The Necks. Do you see yourselves in any tradition?
CA: It comes out of jazz, sure. I think the way we go about it and what comes out of the way we go about it are possibly two different things. Sometimes we can sound very much like modern jazz or sometimes we play things that people can hear as reggae or soul influenced or European improvisation. All these kinds of things we are capable of producing out of the method that we approach. So, in a sense, we can do a lot of different things. In terms of being in one particular genre or tradition, it is quite hard to say really, the way we go about it. We go about it very simply. There are a lot of non-Western ideas of playing music that we tap into - not necessarily known to us. There is a very ecstatic dimension to the way we play. We all get lost in the music. We don?t tend to think about it or talk about traditions of music as such except that we subconsciously bring whatever we have been listening to.
LS: It is impossible for us to be objective about our own playing. If it is the case that there are few parallels then I'd find that very inspiring, and I would think that others would too. We are just three ordinary Joes. We are not tortured geniuses. I have been reading a biography of Hector Berlioz; there is a man given to extreme emotions on a day-to-day basis. I think it is really encouraging if we have come to a music that people are really connecting with and are saying, "I've not heard anything like that. I can't put my finger on where it's coming from but I really like it." That is great because it does show that ordinary people can still do those things.
TB: If you think about the elements that make up a style of music, say the nature of riffs or chords or repetitive patterns that make up a style like soul music, if we played that for eight bars, you'd say these guys are playing soul music. But if we play it for twenty-eight minutes then it's The Necks. If we play a very smooth jazz in a Miles Davis kind of way, but then differ the duration, then that is one thing that makes it quite Necksy. (Necksy?) There are certain touches on our instruments that are quite original. You can tell it is us playing which also adds to the sound, the weight of Chris's touch on the piano, or the way that I use cymbals, the timbre of the bass. That also contributes to The Necks thing.