Australia doesn't come to mind as a hotbed for either jazz or experimental music, yet it has plenty of both. And when either genre is mentioned, a Sydney trio with the non-jazzy, un-experimental name of The Necks rises immediately to the top of the list. But despite their longevity (three decades of activity and 14 albums) and popularity (selling thousands of each release plus a strong European fan-base), The Necks have kept a low profile in the States until recently.
"We've been really busy in Australia and Europe," explains double bassist Lloyd Swanton, who formed the band in the late 1980s with pianist and New Zealand native Chris Abrahams and drummer Tony Buck. "We're a small operation and found we were at capacity just tackling our obligations in those areas." The Necks did play a prominent concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in October 2001 -- immediately after the World Trade Center attack. "For a while, it looked like the concert wouldn't happen, but they let it go on, and it was great."
Actually, Americans were introduced to The Necks much earlier: back in 1989, when Peter Baumann's Private Music licensed their very first album, Sex. As a result, The Necks briefly shared a label with the New Agey crowd of Yanni, Suzanne Ciani and Tangerine Dream. "It was possible for people to believe that Sex was in the New Age category," says Swanton, "but we headed in another direction."
Nowadays, the Necks have their own Australian imprint, Fish of Milk, and an overseas partner that's much more their speed: the highly respected U.K.-based ReR (Recommended Records), owned by percussionist Chris Cutler. They're comfortable amidst a roster of Henry Cow, Faust and This Heat, though The Necks' improvisational approach is a bit more mellow, like a jazzy, trancey version of British improv legends AMM, another longtime ReR act.
The Necks' latest release, Townsville, epitomizes everything that's so perfect about their intense yet level-headed approach to improvising. As is usual for them, it's a single hour-long piece (recorded live at a concert in Queensland), comprised of repetitive, cyclical motifs that build so imperceptibly and glacially that Buck doesn't even touch most of his kit until nearly the end, preferring to focus on tapping his cymbals. Meanwhile, Abrahams spins out dense, swirly note clusters around Swanton's smoky bottom-end, with an effect critics have likened to the tide gradually coming in, reaching a peak only within the last five minutes.
As the band always creates spontaneously, they make every effort to document the process. "We have over 200 hours of recordings, but [Townsville] was one of those concerts that we definitely said was a contender for an album," says Swanton. "It's very self-contained, following a logic from start to finish. Also, some years back we began to discard tempos, not having a beat but just shimmering and tumbling, and we thought it was a lovely demonstration of that.
"I wouldn't try to convince anyone that we're reinventing the wheel, but our modus operandi is simply to wait until one of us comes up with an idea, and then the others fall in with their contributions," he says. "We never discuss what we'll do onstage, and we don't do postmortems either. That hasn't changed in 22 years."
The Necks' brand of avant-garde minimalist ambient-jazz has proven perfect for soundtracks, appearing in award-winning Australian films and TV programs. In addition, Swanton plays with a lot of the big jazz names that tour Australia, from Marilyn Crispell to Sting; Abrahams has a history in the Aussie rock and pop scenes, having been onstage with Midnight Oil, Silverchair and Ed Kuepper of The Saints. Buck always searches for improv partners, such as German pianist Magda Mayas, with whom he has a new album on the Creative Source label; his other new band, Project Transmit, is a driving post-rock outfit about to see release on European label Staubgold.
When The Necks play The Warhol on Tue., Feb. 17, the audience may react in ways as wide-ranging as the musicians' own backgrounds. "Some listeners tell us they do enjoy drifting off -- they can either focus intently, or they can almost fall asleep," says Swanton. "We move through a range of situations, from absolute focus to a virtual state where we are almost watching ourselves play, like an out-of-body experience. When it gets very physical, we're not thinking about anything at all, like [automatic composition].
"When we put the band together all those years ago," continues Swanton, "we discovered that if we always allow the music to unfurl at its own rate, it wasn't hard to concentrate on it. The music would always tell us where to go next."
The Necks with Ben Opie Trio. 8 p.m. Tue., Feb. 17. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $12. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org