Liam Noble (new album with Geoff Simkins, ‘Lucky Teeth’)

Liam Noble is releasing a duo album, “Lucky Teeth”, recorded live at the Vortex, with alto saxophonist Geoff Simkins. Interview with Sebastian:

Liam Noble leaning on piano
Liam Noble. Photo credit: Steven Cropper

LondonJazz News: How/when did you first get to know Geoff Simkins? 

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Liam Noble: Geoff and I first met on the Welsh Summer School in Treforest, run by the late Dave Wickins, in the mid 90s. I was a few years out of college and quite intimidated by the whole thing of teaching in groups, but the playing sessions in the evenings was equally scary. People like Stan Sulzmann, Chris Batchelor, Alex Maguire all got up and played…it was very inspiring, and Geoff was part of that scene.

Something about seeing people teach and then watching them put their words into action (or sometimes not!) on stage was a magical combination. It was, and continues to be, a very special occasion each year. Geoff and I have been talking about playing more for years and finally I decided to get around to making it happen…

LJN: Had the two of you played much together before this?

LN: Actually, very little… I remember one gig at the late lamented Con Cellar Bar where Geoff played with my trio with Dave Whitford and Dave Wickins. The atmosphere there was always great, and we all felt like kindred souls. We had played as a trio with Bobby Wellins for so long and after he passed away, I felt that Geoff was the only person who could fill those shoes…which meant, he could do something completely different but with that same level of focus and intensity around the standard repertoire. After that gig, as often happens, other things took over and since Dave Wickins passed away, I haven’t really had a trio playing that music. For me that was a very special collection of people and I haven’t felt like trying to replace it.

LJN: Geoff has said “I have often been stowed in a compartment labelled ‘Cool School’”. There is much more to him and his playing than that, right? 

LN: Compartments are sometimes useful, particularly when one is new to something and you need a filter to sort out what’s going on; if I’m going to an art gallery, I need all the help I can get! I think these ways of appreciating and understanding things like art and science require guidance and practice. But the limitations become obvious pretty quickly. There’s often a need to collate specific methods of improvisation with aspects of human nature that seem unrelated…what is “cool”? Is it to do with understatement, and does that then somehow imply a lack of passion or fire? I think every musical situation creates its own parameters to work within, and sometimes the degrees of contrast are small, you have to kind of lean in to pick them up…this setting for me is relatively “quiet”, and that opens up ways of playing that allow for more tonal contrast.

For music to work, you have to set up a situation where things happen, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a three chord song or an orchestral suite using mathematical ratios, a shout or a whisper, it’s the movement from where you are to somewhere else and back again.

What I find about Geoff’s playing is that there’s this continual movement in the sound, it’s subtle but can also be fiery…this is what attracts me to musicians most. I mean, he has such a lot of agility around his lines and the phrasing, the pacing of things…but the sound, that’s the first thing for me. There has to be a quality where you can kind of get inside it, blend and move with the other person. It’s storytelling, and he’s a master of this in person too. There was a great bit on the gig where he tells the story behind the title “Lucky Teeth”…it’s so succinct and understated but also hilarious: his command of language is verbal and musical…in the end, I couldn’t find a way to put it on the recording as he’s slightly off the mic, but maybe I’ll make it available on the 20th anniversary box set edition!

LJN: What gave the impetus to do this concert and this recording? 

LN: Well, honestly, I was on a mission to make a recording I would be proud of for the least amount of money possible! Alex Killpartrick recorded, mixed and mastered the record – he’s brilliant, very fastidious and precise. Because it was a gig at the Vortex, we got paid, so that helped contribute to the cost. Things are so tight at the moment, and it’s easy to give up and just not do anything because of rising costs and shrinking returns. But we made it work. We made physical CDs and have a Bandcamp page, but Spotify and the rest of those streaming sites are, for the moment, out of the picture. Maybe when we’ve run out of CDs I’ll put it up on there, but…I view those sites as a kind of library service. Of course I use Apple Music, and am always checking things out there, but if I like something and especially if it’s made by people on a small budget, I’ll buy it. I’ve already made more money back from Bandcamp in two days since the release than I have on Apple Music or Spotify with any other record I’ve made. So for now, I’ll stick with the cottage industry model!

Plus, I wanted to hear Geoff play on a Duran Duran song. That was very important to me. We owe that to the world.

Geoff playing saxophone
Geoff Simkins. Photo credit: David Forman

LJN: I guess the duo gives you a lot more flexibility with form – with everything – compared to the trio / quartet setting?

LN: Yes, that’s true. Some of these tunes, like the traditional song “Black Waterside”, naturally opened out into something looser. I’ve always equated the freeness of phrasing and malleability of sound with open structure, so it felt natural to kind of let the sound move into these other areas. But I also had a real ambition to play single line improvisations with someone like Geoff who can really turn and swoop…I always loved the kind of counterpoint that Gerry Mulligan’s sextet and Jimmy Giuffre’s trio with Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer got into. But then, that kind of counterpoint also plays a big part in Tim Berne’s and Henry Threadgill’s music, so for me there’s a thread linking the so-called “cool school” with more avant garde and contemporary music. The intervals in the music are different, but the intent is similar…counterpoint kind of unifies a lot of mixed languages and dialects in one way of working. Also, maybe most importantly, counterpoint in rhythm is the African side of the music too – all of these things crystallised in my head when thinking about this duo.

LJN: The album starts with a standard,“Stella by Starlight”. What led you to want to record standards. Does this album stem in any way from your “themed” lockdown solo streams..?  

LN: Well, “Save A Prayer” and “Black Waterside” are both tunes I did in lockdown concerts. Among all that stuff, there’s not actually that much that I felt would translate to a working gig situation, but those are two that popped into my mind. There are a few more in reserve, like The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”…that’s a great vamp!

On the more general topic of playing standards, I think I’ve missed that repertoire since the days of my trio and the quartet with Bobby. There’s a strange need to get away from it, coupled with a kind of homesickness of missing it. I wanted to try and make that material alive again…you know, people spend four years at college where they study that music and, perhaps out of boredom and frustration, they’ll sometimes abandon it when they leave. It’s become popular to kick against conservatoire education, and that’s always been the case, in fact you could argue that it’s part of the purpose of a conservatoire – to rebel against its dogmas and systems. But I learnt that music before I went to college, so I kept the love for it. I remember being dumped in my teens and listening to “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis and feeling better!

Opening the gig with “Stella By Starlight” was a deliberate attempt to use a tune that everyone has to study and learn but nobody wants to tackle. It was an attempt to get away from the necessary correlation of a tune with its most famous recordings…I couldn’t play like Bill Evans if I tried, and it’s not necessary to do so. You have to think past the museum pieces and try and get into the fundamentals of a tune’s structure again, its emotional arc and its melody.

LJN: There is that quote from Zoot Sims (presumably from 1969):  “America’s put a man on the moon and I’m still playing Indiana.” You must believe that there is joy/ life / inspiration to be found in this repertoire?

LN: That’s a great quote! I think there’s joy and inspiration in any repertoire, I think there’s freedom in playing standards and discipline in playing free. I think you have to try and make a personal contribution somehow, in whichever area or areas you work in, and you have to have an open mind to do that. If you listen hard enough the answers are there, in the records made by other people and in the sounds you hear in yourself. There’s no one on the moon anymore…and people still play “Indiana”, so who’s dated now haha….?

LJN: What was the first tune you and GS knew you wanted to play together? 

LN: I can’t remember! It might have actually been “Stella By Starlight” in fact. 

I think we had the cliché of bumbling around onstage at the Summer School trying to decide what to play, and picked that tune almost out of desperation…and somehow found something surprising in it. It might, on that occasion, have just been that we played it a bit faster than usual. Sometimes changing tempos of things makes you discover something in them all over again.

LJN: You have a Duran Duran tune… what’s the story there? 

LN: It’s just such a brilliant chord sequence. When I played it online as a solo piece it really surprised me, and the tune is really just a bit of noodling to fit the words in, but the chords for me are the centre of the piece. So we started without the melody: the modulations in the sequence are so well timed and clever, and I knew Geoff would eat that stuff up! I also love hearing music where languages collide…that language of improvisation is so flexible, and although people like to pin it down to certain tunes and a certain era, there’s also something about hearing those lines winding through what was basically a bit of grandiose pop. But doing a lot of those tunes, amongst other things, on those solo lockdown gigs made me realise how the 80s were a somewhat magical time for jazz colours and rhythms seeping into music. Level 42, Thomas Dolby, Scritti Politti, Joe Jackson, Spandau Ballet, The Human League, Madonna…there are so many examples. It was a time when pop and jazz were pretty close together. And you can find that, if you look hard enough, in most eras of pop, but then it was all in “the charts” (whatever they are now!).

LJN: In “When You’re Smiling” you play cat-and-mouse, avoid the contours of the tune… and then only state it when the finishing tape is in sight. Neat idea…

LN: Geoff kicked this tune off pretty fast on the gig… I think it was the last tune and we were pretty relaxed by then. It’s the perfect vehicle for that two line counterpoint, but at this tempo I was really hanging on by my fingertips. There’s a point in this tune that really makes me laugh, somewhere near the end, where we’re both roaring away and we suddenly play the same notes at the same time… evidence of something, but I don’t know what! Sometimes it feels better to have a gradual build rather than that shape where there’s a big block of sound (the tune) then everything comes back down and you work back into the same block at the end. I wanted to feel like the tunes emerged from the general “soup” of the music like vegetables bobbing to the surface.

Lucy Teeth album cover showing sketch of an angler fish

LJN: Which of you has the “Lucky Teeth”? 

LN: At this point, having teeth at all feels like a blessing.

LJN: Who else needs thanking? 

LN: Well, apart from the miraculous talents of Alex Killpartrick, who recorded, mixed and mastered everything, there’s someone who I’ve never met called Eugeniy Zotov who did the drawing of the angler fish on the cover…I bought it for a very small sum from a royalty free website. Everyone loves the cover: I definitely owe him a pint! 

LJN: How / where  does one find a copy of the album?

LN: For now, it’s on Bandcamp as both a download and a physical CD. I don’t know how shipping CDs to the EU will work, let’s see…the link is HERE.

LJN: And when / where might one hear this duo live?

LN: We have a couple of gigs in the book, with more to come: one at Birmingham Jazz 1000 Trades on 23 Feb 2024 and one at Bracknell Jazz on 1 March 2024. I’m currently working on tour dates around that period so hopefully we’ll be coming to a venue near everyone in the Spring!

LINK: Lucky Teeth on Bandcamp

3 replies »

  1. Love that reinterpretation of Save a Prayer, which has prompted me to reappraise the song. Great stuff!

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