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David Lyttle: Facing All The Music


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It’s about getting to the stage where you’re not concerned with what people think, but where you’re concerned with doing what feels right
—David Lyttle
In times when independent musicians have to function as one-person business enterprises most musicians show more than one face. David Lyttle, drummer par excellence from Waringstown, Northern Ireland, wears more faces than most. Musician, songwriter, record label owner, producer, interviewer and talent scout—Lyttle has built a solid reputation in multiple fields in a relatively short span of time.

Perhaps best known as a jazz drummer in the early years of his professional career, Lyttle has increasingly pushed himself beyond the confines of straight-ahead jazz, immersing himself in more contemporary rhythms and sounds, including rap and hip-hop. Lyttle's aptly titled third album as leader, Faces (Lyte Records, 2015), is his most expansive musical statement to date, reflecting the ever-widening musical world he inhabits.

Alongside local talent such as saxophonist Meilana Gillard and singer-songwriter/pianist Duke Special, Lyttle brings on board English improvising jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, singer Natalie Oliveri and pianist Jason Rebello. From New York there's tenor sax legend Joe Lovano as well as coterie of exciting hip-hop and rap artists. There's a strong family connection too, with Lyttle's mother Anne and his sister Rhea singing on several tracks. Besides Lyttle's home studio in Waringstown, the music was recorded in Dublin, Derry, London and New York. Some of the music was inspired by New Orleans and a little bit of all these places inhabits the highly melodic, groove-based music.

Most of the music, however, was written in Lyttle's studio at home: "It's my label headquarters and my writing, mixing and editing headquarters," explains Lyttle. "It's a nice room with a nice sound but it's good too when you're somewhere different. The key for me is not to be too aware of your surroundings."

The writing process for Faces was a mixture of old school suck-it-and-see and more modern approaches: "The Duke Special song ["Houdini"] we wrote in Belfast. That was very old-fashioned song writing," says Lyttle. "Others were more internet-based. I had ideas I sent over to people. Most of it started at home and was flown around, sometimes literally, and finished in other places."

The appeal of Faces lies in its musical diversity and its sonic continuity, production-wise. Following a couple of straight-ahead jazz albums, the acoustic True Story Lyte Records, 2007), and Questions (Lyte Records, 2010)—his collaboration with then then thirteen-year-old guitar protégé Andreas Varady—Lyttle expanded his musical horizons on Interlude (Lyte Records, 2012), exploring more urbane and contemporary rhythms. By and large, Faces follows a similar blueprint.

"The album could have been any style and more in one genre but I approached it song by song," says Lyttle. "It wasn't until I was a third of the way through it I started to think what the whole album would sound like, what the common thread is. The common thread is me and I think that's enough. The diversity reflects where I'm at. There are elements of all the music I like but most of the songs started with an idea that evolved naturally."

Almost as important to Lyttle as the writing is the overall sound of Faces: "I think the tone of the album is consistent and that comes from just one person producing it, and, importantly, the mixing and mastering. I think had I got other people to do that or to work on individual tracks I don't think it would have worked," says Lyttle, who spent a year getting the recording just right.

Surprisingly, even by Lyttle's eclectic standards, Faces begins with thirty seconds of unaccompanied cello, played by Lyttle himself, who was trained in the instrument in his youth: "I played cello on one of the tracks on Interlude but not since then. A lot of the time you try something and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

That spirit of adventure characterizes all Lyttle's musical endeavors but the inspiration for the cello intro came from perhaps a surprising quarter: "I got big into Dr. John and his albums all have these really dramatic intros," explains Lyttle. "He doesn't sing on the first track normally. Maybe he's on piano or maybe not. Maybe it's just an atmospheric thing with sounds from the country or the swamp. I really like that idea of setting up an album. It's like watching the opening credits of a film rather than just bang, here's the album. It's setting it up and clearing your mind of what you might expect to begin with and allowing it to kind of develop."

In fact, the soulful "The Second Line," which pays homage to New Orleans, had originally been written with Dr. John in mind. However, as Lyttle explains, the idea failed to come to fruition: "I had sent him a very basic demo two years ago and he said he'd do it. I developed it but in the end it fell through because of his touring and he had his own album coming out."

Lyttle then sent the song to Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli, one half of rap duo Black Star: "He loved it," says Lyttle. "I think it was a better call anyway. I think it's got more energy and that's his thing. His delivery is very strong." So too, is Lyttle's drumming: "It just started out with a New Orleans snare pattern. The whole song was originally like that and then it became an old school, retro funk kind of thing."

Lyrically, the song is a commentary on issues within the music industry: "Talib is very outspoken about corruption, and all sorts of social issues, especially in the black community," says Lyttle. "On this song he dealt more with the hip-hop world and falseness in the music industry."

Lyttle has toured extensively throughout the United States over the past decade but he only came to New Orleans fairly recently: "I knew the history and the culture but I only went for the first time two years ago. For some reason it was one of the last places in the States that I went to. I went back again last year."

The Big Easy immediately worked its charms on Lyttle: "I love it," he enthuses. "Besides the music, just the feeling in the city walking around the streets, the little dive bars everywhere. It's an amazing place. One of my favorite films is Live and Let Die (1973) so maybe it's all coming from that," he says laughing.

Lyttle is reluctant to opine on the health of traditional jazz in New Orleans: "I haven't been there enough but I've talked to musicians from there who are quite prominent on the scene and their take is that the music is not really as alive as it should be in New Orleans. There are a lot of touristy things. It's good music but it's touristy and a bit overpriced."

As for modern jazz, it proved a little elusive during Lyttle's visits to the city: "The contemporary scene? I don't know. I didn't get to see that. You'd need to live there," Lyttle admits. "Whenever you go to New York jazz is so accessible. You can go and hear anything any night—what contemporary jazz is on tonight, what free-jazz is on in Brooklyn tonight, what's going on uptown on the straight-ahead scene. It's all there and there's so much but I didn't get that vibe so much in New Orleans."

Whereas most of the tracks interpreted by the rappers on Faces were recorded remotely, Lyttle traveled to New York for the studio session with Joe Lovano that produced "Lullaby for the Lost," which also features New York rapper IllSpokinn and UK rapper Homecut. The track was recorded in the legendary Avatar studios: "It's one of the last big studios," says Lyttle, "like the Abbey Road of New York."

Lyttle had approached Lovano to see if he'd be interested in hearing some of his music. When Lovano replied in the affirmative Lyttle didn't waste any time: "At that point I thought of "Lullaby for the Lost" because it has quite a complex chord progression and shifts a lot so you want a soloist who'll be able to work well with that. I didn't want a funk solo; I wanted something a bit more sensitive because of the subject of the song and Joe [Lovano] was the first one I thought of. I hope the rappers won't mind me saying, but the song was set up for him."

It was a bit of a coup for Lyttle to secure the services of one of jazz's most iconic contemporary figures: "I was nervous when I first walked into the studio," admits Lyttle, "obviously sitting in the studio with Joe Lovano and it's my session and he's asking me what to do..." he recalls, laughing. "But the vibe was easy. He's just a guy who loves playing music; he's given his life to it and created some amazing albums. There are people I've worked who would make you feel nervous and make you feel like you're just a kid. That's just issues they have with themselves. It was nice to hang out with Joe."

If Lyttle was ever in speechless awe of such famous players it's no longer the case: "I get more excited than nervous now," he says. "I think it's just about respect. You're aware of what they've done and who they are but you treat them like any other musician—with respect."

Though short, the solo Lovano plays on "Lullaby for the Lost" is one of the most soulful he's ever committed to record. No wonder the track has been getting heavy air-time on the UK's leading radio station dedicated to jazz, Jazz FM. To Lyttle's surprise and obvious satisfaction "Lullaby of the Lost" has also been well received on pop radio stations in Ireland.

All the tracks on Faces have broad commercial appeal—funk, hip-hop, rap, R&B etc. So does that mean that Faces was conceived as a broadly commercial album? "I wanted an element of that," says Lyttle, "but it wasn't a conscious decision. It was a question of what worked. The whole album comes from a deeper place than trying to create a hit, but it's nice when you can say what you want to say and it still fits a mold where a large audience can at least hear it and decide whether to like it or not."

The music on Faces all works -infectiously so, in fact. Though eight years on from the acoustic jazz of True Story Lyttle's musical identity is now much more multi-faceted: "I didn't want Faces to be too heavily jazz tinged," he acknowledges. "So much jazz doesn't make it onto mainstream radio because it's too long. When you get so immersed in any niche world you can lose sight of the bigger picture. I don't like that exclusive kind of thing -much as I love jazz. At the same time I have a lot of respect for people who have a life-long focus on developing their own personalities as jazz musicians."

Lyttle evidently loves jazz and much of the music he listens to recreationally is jazz. He still gigs straight-ahead jazz when the opportunity arises, as evidenced on his 2013 fourteen-date tour of Northern Ireland in a trio with Tom Harrison and bassist Neil O'Loughlen. Such a string of dates in N. I., particularly for a jazz trio, is almost unheard of these days but Lyttle is a good example of where there's a will there's a way: "I did the same thing with Mark McKnight—I think that was 2009. I had played a lot of the places and had a good relationship with most of the venues."

Still, for fans who know Lyttle exclusively in his jazz drummer robes, Interlude and Faces represent a significant change: "Prior to Interlude I was just known in the jazz world," recognizes Lyttle. "My whole audience, the people who had bought my previous album and came to my gigs and supported my label were all jazz fans. Some people think you've sold out or you can't make it as a jazz musician, rather than thinking 'this guy's trying something different, so what?'"

With Interlude Lyttle admits that he felt the weight of people's expectations of him: "At that point I didn't feel very free in the sense that I was almost a bit scared to put out something different, but I feel much freer now. I feel I can play jazz, or put out an album that's not jazz, or go and write a folk song. It's about getting to the stage where you're not concerned with what people think but where you're concerned with doing what feels right."

Doing what feels right for Lyttle can mean releasing a classical CD on his record label, as in the case of young Israeli pianist Areil Lanyi, who recorded Schuman, Liszt and Janáček on Romantic Profiles (Lyte Records, 2012), or releasing the latest in new-trad Irish music with Moxie's Planted (Lyte Records, 2014).

There's still plenty of room for jazz—of various hues—on Lyte Records, as Jason Rebello's infectious jazz-fusion/cross-over release Anything But Look (Lyte Records, 2013) and Jean Toussaint's glorious straight-ahead Tate Song (Lyte Records, 2014) both demonstrate.

Jazz still occupies Lyttle personally on the live circuit as well, though as he freely admits, it isn't the be all and end all for him: "I still perform jazz in its purest sense and still love listening to a lot of jazz, but I reached a stage about four of five years ago where I didn't want to do one thing exclusively. Jazz is very immersive. It's like eating the same food every night. Maybe gourmet food, but after a while you feel you're not leading as full a musical life as you can. But that's just me."

Perhaps it's not surprising that Lyttle has opened up to embrace all sorts of music, because in a sense these are his earliest musical roots, dating back to his infancy when he already performed with the family band, The Lyttle Family, alongside his parents and five siblings.

"We used to have a caravan in Rossnaula in Donegal and the summers were spent there," recalls Lyttle. "At the weekends the family used to play in The Manor House bar. It was a great community scene; a massive family, really. I would just watch the music and I think I might have picked up the bohran at one point. I might have been four, maybe younger," he says, laughing.

"Then my Dad made me a set of bongos. I developed and got better and then took up cello at eight as my official instrument but I never really connected with it in the way I did with drums. It was just like a child taking an interest in football if their Dad's a professional footballer and he gets the opportunity to play with professionals every now and then. It was like that, rather than 'you're going to play drums in this band whether you like it or not,'" laughs Lyttle.

"There was a lot of folk music," recalls Lyttle of the family band. "Folk music in the broadest sense, whether it was Irish, Scottish, American bluegrass or whatever. My parents also introduced me to a lot of really good Irish songs, as well as The Beatles. A lot of Irish music is very soulful and heartfelt. Very honest music. I think the Beatles is very honest music."

There are important contributions from two local musicians on Faces. Singer/songwriter Duke Special co-wrote the uber-catchy "Houdini" with Lyttle. The two first collaborated together on a dance track when Lyttle was Artist in Residence for Beat Carnival, a charitable organization that promotes carnival arts. The two quickly struck up a friendship.

"We're into a lot of the same stuff," says Lyttle. "He's an amazing pianist. He's into early blues and has a lot of early jazz stuff in his playing. He brings a stride influence into what's pop music really. He writes really deep heartfelt songs, really powerful pop songs. The big thing is his voice."

Another musician who graces Faces is American-born, Belfast-based saxophonist Meilana Gillard, a stalwart of the local jazz scene: "She's a very honest person and is very honest about what she puts out, what goes through her saxophone and through her hands when she writes a tune," says Lyttle. "She's constantly moving forward with her art and developing her voice as a jazz saxophonist."

Gillard plays on "Perception" and Lyttle explains the genesis of the song: "At the time I was listening to a lot of sixties music like Burt Bacharach, with those beautiful, big arrangements.. There's a lot of movement and a lot of space in that music. It's just so powerful. When you think what was in the mainstream back in the 1960s it's pretty amazing. I wanted to get an element of that and try to be more contemporary with it. I knew Melaina played a lot of woodwinds so I gave her free rein and what she did with it was amazing. "

"Perception" also features Lyttle's mother Anne on vocals. Despite Lyttle's early induction into the family band this was the first time mother and son had co-penned a song. Anne Lyttle also brings a touch of gospel-blues to "Seek." The family connection extends to Sister Rhea, who sings on "Detour"—a slow funk number that also features Jean Toussaint—and on the catchy "Gameboy," which features Zane, an up-and-coming hip-hop artist originally from Zimbabwe but raised in Drogheda: "A lot of hip-hop vocalists can be really in your face," says Lyttle," but Zane's approach is really chilled and soulful."

The one track on Faces that Lyttle doesn't drum on is the title track, a vehicle for jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss: "I've known Cleveland for a while and done a few gigs with him," says Lyttle. "I didn't want him just to sing a song; I wanted to showcase his improvisation, which he's so good at. He improvises on a really high level. He also does amazing things with a loop station live on stage, layering his voice, but I didn't want to take that approach because that's more of a live thing. We actually recorded it in Derry."

The year ahead is looking like a busy one for Lyttle. There are of course festival appearances and gigs to promote Faces, with the possibility of a tour to Japan. With the growth of his label and his international profile to boot, the media is courting Lyttle more than ever before: "I had to work hard to get media exposure for Interlude but for Faces the media feedback has been fast, which means I'll not be sitting in the office so much. The record label has grown I have an intern and an agent now. I love being part of the process but it'll be nice to focus more on the creative side."

Lyttle still harbors ambitions to record the Barinthus Suite, an epic collaboration with bassist Eddie Lee commissioned by the Hawk's Well Theatre in Sligo. The title is named after the Celtic god of the sea and the music inspired by Sligo's megalithic landscape. The Barinthus Suite premiered at the Sligo Jazz Project 2013, with an all-star cast of musicians from the jazz and folk worlds, including Kenny Werner, and earned a standing ovation.

"Eddie and I have talked about it and I think we will record it" affirms Lyttle. "It was something we really enjoyed doing and I'm really proud of it. The nature of that kind of thing is that you have limited time to rehearse. It went well in the Hawk's Well but the next time would be better."

Inevitably, Lyttle plays more gigs outside Ireland than at home, but that's got more to do with his ambition to explore than it has to do with the relatively limited opportunities on such a small island: "You can't just stick in one place," says Lyttle. "You can't really have a career that way and I wouldn't want to anyway. I love Ireland, I still live here but you've got to be out and about and experiencing other places and responding to other music."

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