Lloyd Swanton on the art of free improvisation

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As double bassist of long-running Australian trio the Necks, Lloyd Swanton is an expert in group improvisation. He speaks to Andy Hamilton about his inspirations, maintaining creativity, and making contemporary improvised music accessible

Since their inception in 1987, Australian trio the Necks have pursued uncompromising, spontaneous improvisation – they prepare nothing in advance for live performance. For bassist Lloyd Swanton, their aesthetic is summed up in Christopher Small’s slogan ‘process not product’, from his influential book Music, Society, Education (1977): ‘I read it while studying in London in 1986 and it turned my head around,’ Swanton comments. ‘Small argues that for many of the world’s musical traditions the process of making music is far more valued than the finished product. He even coins a verb – strictly, a gerund – “musicking”.’Membership of the Necks has remained constant over 30 years, with Chris Abrahams (piano, electric keyboards and organ), Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (percussion). All three come from jazz backgrounds, which they began to find limiting – Swanton has described how the vamp sections leading into solos became rewarding musical experiences in their own right. But the trio are not, strictly speaking, free improvisers and do not, as the term implies, reject all musical structures including metre; their work can be groove-based and exploits tonal and modal harmony. 

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