INTERVIEW: Liam Noble (Brother Face recording on Bandcamp released)

Liam Noble

The pianist and composer Liam Noble has released a 2013 live recording by his band Brother Face, which also included Chris Batchelor (trumpet), Shabaka Hutchings (tenor, clarinet), Dave Whitford (double bass) and Dave Wickens (drums), as a download only via Bandcamp. Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon thought up the silly questions; Liam provided the sensible answers.

LondonJazz News: Brother Face. Strange name for a band. Where does it come from?

Liam Noble: Well, I like strange names because they don’t mean anything… or maybe something seems completely abstract but somehow makes you wonder if there might be more to it after all.  That meaninglessness is something I have always aspired to in music, something that is simply well made and can create an emotional reaction because of that and nothing else. Robert Creeley, whose poetry I really love, used the expression in a poem called Histoire de Florida, describing his own reflection in a mirror. I liked the way the words sounded and, as happened with my solo recording’s cover photo, I liked this idea of a kind of inner dialogue with someone or something.

LJN: This recording comes from the band’s tour in 2013. Was it a pleasurable experience, that tour? Are you happy with the recorded results?

LN: Yes, it was a pleasurable experience!  I don’t do my own projects that often, I guess I am a sideman by trade and that’s a comfortable role for me, but occasionally I feel the pull of writing some new music despite myself (unfortunately, no one else wants to write my music or get my band together…)  I knew everyone in this group really well except for Shabaka, whom I met in 2012 and felt had an approach to music that would fit right in.

So it was a bit of a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, doing composed music with the trio that made Brubeck, which was much more a “jazz” album, and then adding two horns and exploring a wider way of interpreting written material.  I think Alex Killpartrick’s recording really brings out the nuances of this gig; there were a lot of quiet sounds, and he makes them really jump out, but the fire is there too.

LJN: Is your composing for a group like this simply an extension of the same process you have when composing for, say, solo piano or improvising, or is it a whole different ball game? Give us a few insights into your compositional method?

LN: Composition is a weird process for me, it’s like a “boiling down”, shaping an idea to its most concise form.  I try and do something that I can’t do when I improvise, which is to edit after the fact.  For me a composition should be like a compressed, dense object that somehow “opens out” as improvisers interact with it, wheres an improvisation can somehow unfold instinctively and be more verbose. A lot of improvisers like compositions that mesh seamlessly with the improvising so that you can’t tell what is improvised and what is composed. I’ve never worked that way, I like the separation; I don’t think my improvisations sound like my compositions, although some people thought my solo piano pieces on A Room Somewhere were composed, when actually I improvised them all.

I always try and aim for “moments” in music, for events, things happening. I don’t like a lot of flying around, or at least that’s never been my strength as an improviser, so I have had to build a way of working around things I like. One of those is counterpoint; I listened a lot to Gould playing Bach, and the sound of those lines colliding seeped into my practice… so now I see chords more as a snapshot of several moving lines rather than as vertical objects. That opens up the harmonic range a bit, but also makes it a bit fragile. Obscurity, for example, has a bit of Prokofiev in the mix, but also some Fats Domino; it didn’t really work as a chord sequence so we just faded it out and had the horns add a bit of “noise”.

So I think sometimes looking outside the typical jazz chordal vocabulary means you also have to change the improvisational approach.  People like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell have influenced me a lot in that respect, and yet they are all completely individual.  That scene around John Zorn in the eighties and after was as much a “golden age” of music for me as was the 1945-65 (or thereabouts) period that forms the basis of most jazz thinking now.  I love that stuff too.  I think if music is moving forward at all, it is the way that people mix up the huge volume of music that is now accessible for study, imitation and absorption, into a personal identity.

LJN: I remarked in a review of this band live at the mac in Birmingham on that same tour, with reference to your solos: “The lighter-hearted stuff he tends to leave to others…” Fair comment or a calumny? Do you have “intentions” when you are improvising? Or are you just “away with the fairies”?

LN: I just had to Google “calumny”, there’s another one for my thesaurus! I’m not sure how serious I want the music to sound, but certainly I’m serious about trying to make it sound good; maybe that comes across in some way. I think I do have intentions which, in a similar way to composing, are to honour the material, stay focused on the notes.

Being away with the fairies is good, as long as the fairies have good notes to offer. But definitely I’m away somewhere, that’s for sure, in the zone, whatever you might call it.  It’s a state of mind where things that would normally require a lot of thought and logic to produce just come into your head and on to your fingers. Almost like making oneself as stupid, as brainless, as possible.  If things are going well, at the end of a tune it’s like I’m waking up after a long sleep. I guess I spend a lot of time thinking about intentions in between performances, imagining things in my head, practising, all that stuff. Nothing ever comes “off the top” of anyone’s head, not really.

LJN: There are a couple of dedications in the tune titles – to Harry Beckett and to Geri Allen. Tell me about people who have influenced you: somebody who has had a direct and even obvious impact on your music; and then somebody whose influence we’d never guess.

LN: Harry was someone I played with a lot, one of those people who was a complete individual but in the tradition too. He was originally from Barbados, and that dance-like feeling always seemed to be in the music, yet he fitted right in to a jazz tradition. In the case of Geri Allen, I wrote that tune and thought parts of it sounded so much like her early music that I wanted to acknowledge that somehow; that I knew I had nicked a certain amount of it! She was a massive influence, both as composer and improviser.

There are a lot of piano players that have influenced me, but I think Duke Ellington has to be the first and strongest of those influences. Somehow his way of dropping sounds into space that make everyone else sound good, almost making the space itself groove rather than the notes… and his touch, that was the first time I heard someone really play the piano with that kind of percussive intention. I guess it’s an African thing, and whilst I hate name checking  a whole continent in such an offhand way to describe music, it seems the only way to say it. It’s music that is ongoing, continuous, a loop of infinity; and when Ellington plays you feel like he’s just tapping into it for that bit of time… there’s no sense of carving a beginning, middle and end as classical composers often do. Everything is unfinished, tunes are just something to hang the notes on so everyone can fit together… that’s the feeling I like about improvised music, and why composing is such a strange and delicate act in this music.

So that’s my (hopefully) obvious influence…one that is a little more tangential (and recent) is that of Japanese classical music. Again it’s a lot to do with the idea of sound as a structural “object”. In this music, sounds come and go and are almost unrelated, rhythm is like a sense of breathing rather than a pulse… my piece Essays In Idleness was written with that in mind, and the musicians all got it completely in the way they improvise around it. I guess it comes out more in the freer side of my playing, but I hear it in Steve Lacy’s solo playing as well as in aspects of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.  I can’t hear any of these players as hard bop or bebop players at all, it’s like they are eating monuments of sound that stand immobile as everything else moves around them.

The image which accompanies the Brother Face album on Bandcamp

LJN: You’ve put this album out on Bandcamp. Any possibilities of a physical release? Cassette even (there’s a link to the cover picture)? Or is that all old hat in this download/streaming age? Fancy giving your two-penn’orth on the state of recorded music? Or bored/depressed by the whole subject?

LN: In practical terms, this was a recording of a particular time, now passed, that has been sitting on my hard drive and I thought it might as well sit on some other people’s hard drive too. To make it into a run of double CD would require a tour to sell them, and I don’t think that’s going to happen for various reasons. So I view it as a kind of archive release; I’m really proud of the music, and everyone plays their arse off.  I hope everyone that wants to hear it knows that it’s out there!

In terms of the general situation with recorded music, I really don’t know what to do about it or what to say about it… there are people that can make a success of their career on this kind of subscription basis, putting out lots of music on sites like Bandcamp and having a continuous stream of stuff up, almost like a musical magazine. There’s something I like about that, and if I had a nice quiet room with great microphones and a person that knew how to use them, plus a spare 50 grand for a great piano, that’s what I’d be doing. I’d quite like to do some stuff that’s more electronic-based, home produced, but… there’s a lot of people going in that direction… maybe when every single person in the world uses a streaming service (and it will have to be one and one only) there might be a pot big enough to make it sustainable for the “content providers” (I hate those words).

For now, I like looking around the room at my CDs and seeing a kind of path back to my past, how I got here, what I like. It gives me a sense of myself.  Of course, there’s definitely too much choice, everywhere in life… whoever is reading this is probably thinking they should be reading something else, just in case it might be more urgent, or there might be a video of a cat falling off the back of a bear they should attend to… we all do it!

LJN: Footballer and Forest Green captain Liam Noble pips you to the post in an internet search. Have you met him? Any grand plans to rob him of his “most famous Liam Noble” crown?

LN: Haha yes, I remember when I felt I was the only “Liam” in the world. Then there was Oasis. Now everyone is called Liam. There’s also another Liam Noble, an actor. Maybe we should organise a meet up, the three of us, and we could sit around a pub table awkwardly looking in different directions with our pints. I like the sound of that. My Facebook post would read, “Humbled and honoured to be part of this great meeting of Liam Nobles”, and two other people called Liam Noble could like it. It sounds like a really cool idea. It would, I suspect, have more likes than anything else I have ever posted!

LINKS: Brother Face’s recording on Bandcamp

Liam Noble’s website

Liam Noble’s blog

Categories: miscellaneous

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