David Lyttle at The MAC


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David Lyttle
January 22, 2016

The soft launch of Brilliant Corners 2016 (March 5-12) took place in Belfast's multi-million pound arts centre, The MAC, and featured Northern Ireland's internationally acclaimed drummer/composer David Lyttle—Moving On Music's Artist-In Residence at The MAC for 2016. The venue, however, was not one of The MAC's main theatres, but instead, a rather curious corner of the complex called The Studio. The Studio looked like an upended oblong room, with a split level and a spiral stairwell that bestowed a vaguely lighthouse effect on the cramped space. It was a suitably brilliant and slightly kooky corner in which to get the ball rolling on the fourth edition of Belfast's annual festival of jazz.

Lyttle has had a busy and rewarding time of late. His third album as leader, Faces , on his own Lyte Records, was nominated in 2015 for both MOBO and UMA awards for best jazz album, in spite of the heavy rap, pop and soul threads, which are all elements of Lyttle's expansive musical universe. This intimate Belfast gig, however, with tenor saxophonist Melaina Gillard and bassist Neil O'Loghlen as Lyttle's trio partners, served up pure, unadulterated jazz of classic vintage, with swing, and bop to the fore.

The set got underway with the smouldering blues of Lyttle's "City Life," with the trio spearheaded by the impressive Gillard. The Belfast-based American wove a beautifully weighted, sultry narrative that brought sympathetic respones from O'Loghlen and Lyttle. The drummer's melodic improvisation evoked the artistry of Ari Hoenig, whose first CD in five years, The Pauper and The Magician is, happily enough, the latest addition to Lyttle's eclectic label.

A lilting melody and shuffling groove colored the infectious "Happy Easter," with O'Loghlen's sing-song solo paving the way for Gillard, who raised the intensity a notch as the rhythm maintained an unwavering course. "Jazz can mean really anything these days," Lyttle said by way of introduction to a new composition, "Jazz Wars"; Lyttle and Gillard's blustery solos were firmly planted in the bebop tradition, but the unexpectedly gentle, brushes-steered coda evoked a New Orleans dirge.

Gillard's balladeering finesse was to the fore on the bluesy "Pure Imagination," the Leslie Bricusse/ Anthony Newley composition sung by Gene Wilder in the film Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory (1971). Lyttle's hands worked the drum skins like a conguero on the intro to "After The Flood," a melodically bright, rhythmically vibrant excerpt from a suite inspired by the story of Jonah and the Whale.

For the album Faces, Lyttle had recruited tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who gave a mesmerising performance on the rap-infused ballad "Lullaby for the Lost"; here, Gillard carved her own imprint on the song, gliding from whispered legato phrasing to a more robust and expansive improvisation, pulling the rhythm section with her. O'Loghlen responded with a leisurely solo ripe with melody before the trio reunited briefly. The bassist—who plays regularly with Louis Stewart as well as in Ensemble Eriu—brought a folksy lyricism to the trio, and his intuitive connection with Lyttle was evident. Lyttle and O'Loghlen know each other's rhythmic maps well, having toured together on a fifteen-date jaunt around Irish towns large and small in 2013, and their interplay during this evening was a delight.

The trio closed out an absorbing set with "Rainbow Connection," the Paul Williams tune written for Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie (1979). The trio's soulful interpretation—with significant closing statements from all— would have turned Kermit an even deeper shade of green with envy, and was illustration of the growing trend that any good tune, in the right hands, can be rebooted in a jazz context.

The David Lyttle Trio plays a mid-morning gig at the Brilliant Corners festival on 11 March in the Crescent Arts Centre. Other acts appearing at this year's festival include, OKO featuring Tim Berne, Dinosuar, Alarmist, Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock, Vein Trio, and Cacao featuring Linley Hamilton. For the first time, Brilliant Corners enters into partnership with the Belfast Film Festival and films on Gil Scott-Heron, Ornette Coleman and Jaco Pastorius will be screened in the BeanBag Cinema.

Full details of Brilliant Corners (information and tickets) are available at Moving On Music's website.

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