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David Lyttle & Joseph Leighton at Caravanserail

Ian Patterson By

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David Lyttle & Joseph Leighton
Caravanserail
Beirut, Lebanon
November 22, 2019

It's a long way from Keady Clachan to Beirut. The last time the Irish duo of David Lyttle and Joseph Leighton came onto All About Jazz's radar it was in a stone and timber farm outhouse in the hills of Limavady. This gig, in the Lebanese capital, is part of the pair's Middle Eastern tour, which also takes in Egypt and Israel. Jamaica beckons in the new year. Lyttle and Leighton, it's safe to say, certainly get around.

Given the current instability in Beirut, and indeed throughout Lebanon, there was serious doubt as to whether this gig would go ahead. Anti-government demonstrations have been marred by violence. Protesters gather nightly in Martyrs Square to vent against institutional corruption and crumbling public services. Against this background there had been practically no gigs in Beirut since October 17, the date that many are calling the 'start of the revolution.'

Just a week before the gig, Caravanserail's owner George Karajian stuck his neck out and advertised the gig on Facebook. His concern as to whether anyone would turn up or not was a legitimate one. In the end, he needn't have worried, as the crowd is a healthy one. A lot of Beirut's jazz musicians have come out tonight in what amounts to a show of solidarity. The show must go on.

Caravanserail has been a Beirut institution since 1969. Though Karajian closed its doors and relocated to London during the catastrophic 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, he returned in 1992, since when the cellar bar in the city's Hamra district has been a magnet for music lovers. Popular music and Arabic music have always been staples here, but since 2016 Karajian has also made jazz a weekly feature, with a Friday gig and a jam session on Wednesday evenings.

For a year now, Lyttle and Leighton have been exploring the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of the jazz standards. Their approach, as evidenced on a laid back "I Should Care" and a surprisingly animated "Autumn Leaves," is one that comes from a place of deep respect, yet which embraces a very personal idiom.

Leighton's articulation is impeccable. His is a juggling act, one that weds strong melodic narrative and sure rhythmic compass to an economy of notes. Still only twenty- two, the Derry guitarist comes across as a savvy disciple of Jim Hall. With no amp, Leighton uses an Effectrode Blackbird to channel the PA. Lyttle's box of tricks, by contrast, are all in the hands. He exhibits the timing of Art Blakey and the melodic guile of Ari Hoenig, while his hands work the skin and metal like the best congueros. A compelling duo, to be sure.

Lyttle, a MOBO award-nominated artist for his album Faces (Lyte Records, 2015), pens a memorable tune himself, and several of his originals grace the set. "Camels"—a reference to the million or so wild camels imported to Australia from Afghanistan and India during the nineteenth century—is a melodically refined yet rhythmically feisty affair -Leighton holding the tiller steady while Lyttle raises the sails. The dynamic "Summer Always Passes" was written during one of Lyttle's multiple tours of China; fast-trilling guitar lines and splashing cymbals are evocative markers of place. Lyttle switches between sticks and brushes on "Monkey and Me," a ballad incorporating a lithe drum solo of colorful cymbal accents and deft melodic contours.

The first set concludes with a swinging version of Cole Porter's "Ev'rything I Love," with Leighton's chords dancing to Lyttle's bustling stick work. "What do you love?" asks someone in the audience. "Everything," Lyttle replies.

After a short interlude the musicians return to Caravanserail's small stage and launch into "Without a Song." Leighton takes a beautifully lyrical solo as Lyttle whips up a storm. When Lyttle leads, the guitarist comps with buoyant chordal progressions. A gentle reading of "All or Nothing at All" is followed by the strikingly pretty original, "Happy Easter," which sees its author work the surfaces of the kit with his hands, while Leighton conducts a sing-song vamp.

A lively version of "With a Song in my "Heart" culminates in a fiery percussive fusillade that lifts the crowd. There's a good atmosphere in the club tonight -an almost celebratory mood. The duo's most affecting playing, however, comes with an achingly tender reading of "The Way You Look Tonight," which has the effect of stilling the audience chatter. It's a powerful thing to experience music alter the chemistry of a room.

The duo signs off with the Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal standard "I'll Be Seeing You," with guitarist and drummer taking turns at melodic and rhythmic roles. The chances of an encore are dashed by the instantaneous music piped over the sound system, but not before the audience shows its heartfelt appreciation for these two fine musicians.

It would be nice to think that Lyttle and Leighton might return to Caravanserail one day. It would be nice too, to imagine a post-revolution Beirut where people don't have to fear crossing town to attend a gig, and where musicians are never out of work. Let's hope, while we're at it, that George Karajian never has to close the doors of Caravanserail ever again.

Photo: Ian Patterson
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