Essential New Music: The Necks’ “Travel”

Many musicians rack up the miles just to get to work, but travel has been an especially inescapable aspect of being the Necks. For while everyone in the trio is Australian and two of them grew up in the same suburb of Sydney during the 1970s, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton have not lived near each other for more than 30 years. It takes planning to put them together, and it leaves a carbon footprint. In times when travel is restricted, as it was when last album Three was released in March 2020, it gets a lot harder for the Necks to play at all.

Thus, the title Travel transmits a lot of energy. It acknowledges not only the fact that Buck had to fly from Berlin to Australia and Abrahams and Swanton had to hoof it from different postal codes in New South Wales in order for them to make the record, but more obliquely, that the recording experience had to compensate for the years that they were unable to mount a tour. In concert, they’re a piano/bass/drums trio that reimagines modal jazz as a spontaneously enacted, instantly composed interaction with the energies and sonorities of the audiences and acoustic spaces they encounter on the road. In the studio, on the other hand, they add layers of instrumentation in order to create music that is as deep as it is expansive.

They switched up the process this time; to make every day a bit like a concert, they started it off with a 20-minute improvisation. Each of the four tracks on Travel is roughly that long, and while none of them is a strictly live recording, all of them sound much closer to the way the Necks do in concert than anything else they’ve done in a long time. Pulsing double bass, patiently propulsive drumming and spare, flowing piano lines hold the foreground. Additional organ chords, bass drones and rustling percussion lurk in the music’s back corners, luring the listener’s attention away on little side trips. 

The album’s title could also be heard as either an invitation or a command directed toward the listener. Do you want some music that’ll keep you centered on the asphalt straight-away? The springy groove and relentlessly looping flourishes of “Signal” will do the trick. Are you in the mood to let your mind wander? Do you need to reach some spiritual space? “Forming” feels like a 20-minute prayer. The patiently winding progress of “Imprinting” will soundtrack your reverie. Or perhaps you want to simply get lost? The cumulative density of “Bloodstream” will take you past the reach of conscious thought. Unless you live in Australia, the Necks probably aren’t coming your way this year. But their music will still take you where you need to go.

—Bill Meyer