Live review

Liam Noble with Seb Rochford and Tom Herbert at Kings Place

Liam Noble with Seb Rochford and Tom Herbert – launch of The Long Game
(Kings Place, 16 September 2019. Review by Richard Lee)

I seem to be following Jon Turney around, mainly in search of Liam Noble. Having namechecked Jon’s excellent Pigfoot Shuffle review for LJN a few weeks ago, I find I’m turning to him once again for his equally fine review of Liam Noble’s new album, The Long Game mainly because he hits the nail on the head: “this is mainly music of reverie rather than revelation. You may look elsewhere for simple declarative statements. If you value, obliquity, wit, and an air of mysteries about to be but never quite solved, then this one is for you.”  I’d read that before the gig, deciding not to pre-empt the music itself, but came away thinking how right Jon was.

But how did it actually do that…?

Liam Noble (Photo © Dave Stapleton)

What’s clear from the off is that this trio is made up of three of the most competent, confident, quietly unassuming musicians you’ll find. That did lend the performance a certain intensity, aided by low blue and gold lighting, though it was never po-faced. The first three tunes (not replicating the album’s track order, incidentally) were segued together, covering the gamut from a gently swinging blues that emerged in the opening Flesh and Blood, through the softly-spikey, rhythmically disorienting Head Over Heels, to the assured, almost funky Rain On My Birthday (dedicated to Liam’s wife Eleanor, who I hope, was listening…) As a statement of intent, these initial 25 minutes laid out the trio’s well-honed credentials: Seb Rochford is established as one of the finest drummers in the hemisphere, with a rare lightness of touch that brims with musicality; yet as a timekeeper he is fearsome and driving. Tom Herbert is an electric bass player of delicacy, not only able to set up complex background “base” lines as well as matching Seb’s propellant timekeeping, but also playing guitar-like lines that sat so well alongside Liam Noble’s keyboards, whose measured use of electronica which I admired in his Pigfoot Shuffle gig a few weeks back, came to the fore. And of course, his work at the piano is supremely fluent but never-ever flashy, always conveying a sense of searching for the next near-perfect thing to say.  

Gentility as much as reverie…

Two contrasting pieces completed the first set: the Satie-like Between You and Me, where the circular feel of the piano chord sequence was complemented by some ethereal bass, at times suggesting there was a hidden woodwind player somewhere. Tom and Seb worked beautifully together on this. Then came the banging Head First with its edge-of-rock lead riff recalling both Seb & Tom’s Polar Bear days and perhaps even something of E.S.T…  Liam’s penchant for a bit of prog-rock shone through, culminating in a blindingly rousing head-to-head finalé  with Seb. If the evening felt initially more of a chamber concert than gig (as is often the way in the studio of Kings Place’s Hall Two), that was now dispelled, at least for the interval. 

A slightly unsettling, quirky rhythmic spikiness characterised the second set’s opening Unmemoried Man. As Liam said, it derives from Oliver Sacks’ studies of the brain and perception and rather wonderfully conveys through its looped phrasing and delicate improvisational interplay the way meaning is built up, resolving with precisely played unison passages for all three of the trio. Next up was Head of Marketing, definitely “one of the things I am not qualified to do” said Liam, almost forgetting to plug the CD (which I urge you to seek out, with great production by Dave Stapleton, and a lovely cover from Olie Bentley of Split and David Bentley). What Noble is qualified to do though is commandingly on display on the CD. And in this particular number, he makes a really satisfying bluesy lope a rather joyful basis for the subtle improvisations around the theme by Seb and Tom.

The set closed with a pair of numbers which demonstrated the trio’s musical telepathy. Pink Mice is a bit of an earworm – “sugary and bad for you, but definitely the best”, according to Liam, who leads this driving piece. But the end of the evening is much more zen. I really wanted to applaud at the end of Pink Mice but it segued rather cleverly into the fractal-like tones of Matcha Mind which draws on and conjures up Japanese tea ceremonies. Liam’s electronics unhurriedly searched for form, developing in his piano theme which subtly melded with Tom’s bass tones and Seb’s kit-stroking, and finally left us quietly contemplating the absence of sound. Cue – after a rightly measured pause – much deserved warm applause and, quite properly, no encore.  Maybe a little bit of revelation after all that reverie? Either way, a hugely satisfying concert.

I had to listen to the CD to confirm my notes and titles, and I haven’t tired of it at all. On Liam’s last trio CD Brubeck he inevitably referenced said piano-man while discreetly forging his own path through the catalogue. For me, he is always his own man, who echoes other players and styles without necessarily mimicking them. I can’t help but hear elements of Carla Bley and the more contemplative keyboard tinklings of those involved with the Canterbury sound, such as Phil Miller. Whether or not this is intentional, the results are immensely pleasing. As the PR for the CD inevitably says, “Liam…is playing the Long Game but his patience has paid off in bucket loads.” Both the concert and album clearly show that it has.

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