Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

August 30, 2023


Their musical conversations are spirited but friendly, animated but relaxed, and feature some superb playing, but without ever putting the emphasis on mere technique.

Liam Noble & Geoff Simkins

“Lucky Teeth”

(FMR Records FMRCD659-0423)

Liam Noble – piano, Geoff Simkins – alto saxophone

“Lucky Teeth” is an intimate duo recording from two British musicians of different jazz generations, pianist Liam Noble, born in 1968 and alto saxophonist Geoff Simkins, born twenty years earlier in 1948.

Simkins is actually one of the first real jazz musicians that I ever heard. During the late 1970s and early 1980s local promoter Tim Lord used to bring prominent mainstream jazz artists to the town of Ludlow, Shropshire on a regular basis. These included saxophonists Geoff Simkins, Danny Moss and John Barnes, trumpeter / cornettist Digby Fairweather, trombonist Roy Williams, pianists Stan Barker and Brian Lemon, bassists Len Skeat and Spike Heatley and drummer Derek Hogg. I suspect that Simkins and Fairweather may be the only ones still with us these days.

Seeing musicians of this calibre perform certainly whetted my appetite for jazz and for me these local gigs represented a good grounding in the music. Tim Lord later went on to organise the Ludlow and Bridgnorth Jazz Festivals, while Simkins continued to return regularly to Ludlow, often accompanied by guitarist Dave Cliff, these two co-leading a quartet featuring a locally based rhythm section.

I have to admit that Simkins rather dropped off my radar when he stopped visiting Ludlow sometime in the 1990s but he has continued to be active, both as a performing musician as an acclaimed jazz educator. Simkins has performed regularly with visiting American jazz musicians, among them guitarist Howard Alden.

In 2006 I reviewed the album “Live At The Station”, an album by a quartet led by the late drummer Allan Ganley. The group also featured Simkins on alto, Cliff on guitar and the impeccable Dave Green on bass. Simkins made a particularly impressive contribution to the recording and the full review can be found here;
Allan Ganley Quartet - Live: The Station | Review | The Jazz Mann

In 2016 Simkins guested with Tuk Tuk, a trio led by tenor saxophonist Joe Northwood, at Dempsey’s in Cardiff. This was a live performance that was very much enjoyed by Jazzmann guest contributor Sean Wilkie, whose account can be read here;
Joe Northwood’s Tuk Tuk with Geoff Simkins - Joe Northwood’s Tuk Tuk with Geoff Simkins, Dempsey’s, Cardiff, 23/11/2016. | Review | The Jazz Mann

Noble has been a much more regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages and has appeared in many different musical guises, probably too many to mention here. These have included work as a solo pianist and the leadership of his own groups, including the quintet Brother Face.

He has also been a regular member of groups led by saxophonists Julian Siegel, Ingrid Laubrock, Chris Biscoe, Harrison Smith, Zhenya Strigalev, Alex Garnett and Tim Whitehead, vocalist Christine Tobin, bassist Mark Lewandowski, drummers Lorraine Baker and Will Glaser and trumpeter Chris Batchelor (the band Pigfoot). 

Noble was also part of the collaborative trio Malija, alongside saxophonist Mark Lockheart and bassist Jasper Hoiby. More recently he has been sighted as part of the trio Freight Train, alongside Pigfoot drummer Paul Clarvis and the Irish vocalist Cathy Jordan.

Noble and Simkins first met when both were teaching at a jazz summer school in the 1990s and have played together off and on ever since.  They come together for “Lucky Teeth”, documented by engineer Alex Killpartrick at a live performance at London’s esteemed Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston on 26th October 2022.

The material is an eclectic mix featuring the duo’s interpretations of jazz standards, pop songs, a traditional folk tune and Noble’s title track, the only original piece on the recording. The artwork features an image of an angler fish drawn by Eygeny Zotov that reminds of the logo of the Lume musicians’ collective / record label founded by saxophonists Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne. However,  I digress.

That said the story of the inspiration behind Noble’s title track makes for an entertaining read and forms part of the album liner notes and I reproduce it here;

One fine Sunday my partner and I were meandering through the peaceful, overgrown paths of Brighton’s Victorian extra-mural cemetery when we happened upon a memorial stone to one Albert “Zanetto” Bale, a music hall artiste and member of a family known as “The Royal Zanettos”. Some on-line enquiries uncovered this detail about another family member, George……”Because he was the tallest of the Bale brothers George is easy to recognise in many photos. In some later close-ups it looks as if he may have had “lucky teeth” with a slight gap between the front two. If so, it may have helped to hold the fork on which he caught turnips”. I had assumed that this was part of some sort of eccentric stage act but further research yielded the information that in 1896 George, with a crowd of 5000 watching, actually stood underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge and caught a turnip (dropped 270 feet from the bridge) on the prongs of a fork clenched between his teeth.
Geoff Simkins

Playing this music is not quite as dangerous as catching an accelerating vegetable on a fork, but there are parallels. It’s enjoyable, but challenging. You have to make something happen over and above the act itself. A good set of strong teeth can be beneficial.
But luck is only part of either story. A gap in between teeth does not a turnip catcher make. There’s work to be done, practice and thought, and this recording is a celebration of that work.
Liam Noble 

The album commences with the duo’s interpretation of the Victor Young composition “Stella by Starlight”, one of the most played of all jazz standards. In an interview with Sebastian Scotney London Jazz News published in June 2023 Noble remarks;
“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”.
Even at this late date Noble and Simkins bring something new to the song with a spacious and unhurried rendition that does indeed fully explore the contours of the piece. Simkins’ primary influence on the alto is the American saxophonist Lee Konitz and there’s something of Konitz’s fluency and intelligence in the elegant playing of Simkins. Meanwhile Noble is a hugely versatile musician with a very broad range of influences, as the song choices on this album suggest. He combines effectively with Simkins as well as delivering an absorbing passage of unaccompanied piano.

Apparently Simkins tells the “Lucky Teeth” story at gigs but here we can only enjoy Noble’s music and a more forceful duo performance that finds Simkins’ alto sliding sinuously and melodically around Noble’s spiky, percussive piano vamp. I’ve always discerned a strong Thelonious Monk influence in Noble’s playing and that’s something that comes into the equation here.

Solo piano introduces Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley”, one of the duo’s most lyrical and nostalgic sounding performances. There’s an appealingly plaintive quality about Simkins’ alto ruminations, with Noble providing suitably sympathetic but authoritative support.

During lockdown Noble gave a series of solo piano concerts from his home, playing an eclectic mix of material that included the Duran Duran song “Save a Prayer”. In the LJN interview Noble speaks approvingly of the song’s chord sequence, but less so of the melody and lyrics. It’s the chord sequence that provides the basis for the duo’s explorations, spacious and lyrical at first, with the yearning sound of the alto underpinned by Noble’s piano chording. It’s a fascinating interpretation, with the familiar melody only really becoming obvious towards the end, and even then slipping in and out of focus. “I love hearing music where languages collide” explains Noble in the LJN interview,  while also pointing out the jazz references in the music of other 1980s pop artists - “ Level 42, Thomas Dolby, Scritti Politti, Joe Jackson, Spandau Ballet, The Human League, Madonna”.

The choice of “Careful”, a composition by the guitarist Jim Hall is inspired by the use of counterpoint by the 1950s trio featuring Hall, saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Noble also cites baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s sextet and talks of the contrapuntal links between these ‘cool school’ musicians and the music of more ‘avant garde’ jazz artists such as saxophonists Tim Berne and Henry Threadgill.
The duo’s rendition of “Careful” is agreeably angular with Simkins’ sax swooping melodically around Noble’s dense and spiky piano chording. As Noble also points out Simkins’ playing combines subtlety with a surprising power and passion. There’s also a percussive solo passage from the pianist that offers further evidence of his virtuosity.

The traditional folk song “Black Waterside”, another piece performed as part of Noble’s solo lockdown livestreams, is delivered as an instrumental, with Noble’s loosely structured piano arpeggios eventually joined by Simkins’ slightly abstract playing of the familiar melody. A more vigorous and searching brand of improvisation follows as the duo probe more deeply.  However,  despite the discursive nature of what is undoubtedly a jazz performance the melancholic quality of the song survives just about intact.

Two pieces from well known contemporary jazz composers follow. Steve Swallow’s tune “Eiderdown” is given a joyful reading with both Simkins and Noble exploring at length, the latter with another dazzling passage of solo piano.

Keith Jarrett’s “Memories of Tomorrow” commences with a passage of solo piano, with Simkins subsequently joining on alto. Here the focus is on pure melody with the two musicians combining brilliantly on one of Jarrett’s most memorable themes, a transcription of one of the improvised passages on the celebrated “Koln Concert” recording, subsequently retitled. Eventually their paths diverge for another passage of solo piano, but this is still a delightfully unified duo performance.

The album concludes with a typically quirky take on that old favourite “When You’re Smiling”. This time it’s Simkins that kicks things off with a passage of unaccompanied saxophone, subsequently joined in dialogue by Noble at the piano. The pair bounce ideas off each other in mischievous fashion,  “playing cat and mouse” as Scotney puts it. They continue to do this in a series of dazzling musical exchanges, only introducing the familiar melody right at the end of the performance, to the obvious delight of the audience.

As Noble told Scotney;
“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”.

Noble’s right, it’s certainly an album that he and Simkins can be justly proud of. Their musical conversations are spirited but friendly, animated but relaxed, and feature some superb playing, but without ever putting the emphasis on mere technique. There’s a warmth and playfulness about these performances, and a lot of mutual respect. All of these qualities are well captured by Killpartrick’s mix.

The eclectic choice of material is also a significant factor in the album’s success, with “Stella by Starlight” the only item that could be considered ‘over familiar’, but the duo approach even this with a fresh and enquiring eye.

“Lucky Teeth” is available via Bandcamp;

The duo have two concerts scheduled in early 2024;

Birmingham Jazz 1000 Trades on 23 Feb 2024 and Bracknell Jazz on 1 March 2024.

It is hoped that further dates will be added.



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