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David Lyttle: Facing All The Music

Ian Patterson By

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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."
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