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David Lyttle: Leading Jazz Into The Hinterlands


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It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living from recorded music and the city experience is becoming more and more difficult. It’s just so expensive to live. Also, because the city has been so culturally relevant, these small places have been overlooked.
—David Lyttle, drummer/composer, owner of Lyte Records
There was a time when jazz groups would zig-zag all over the country, by train, in customized buses or in cars, playing date after date in towns big and small. Tours that kept a band on the road for months at a time were once the norm for many jazz outfits—the bread and butter of countless jazz musicians. Touring on such a scale, in such a manner, however, is largely a thing of the past. Outside of dedicated jazz clubs, it seems as though few people are interested in turning out for live jazz, particularly jazz of the instrumental variety.

For a lot of people jazz appears to be too high-brow—music for the cognoscenti that requires way too great an attention span. When people who don't ordinarily patronize the arts are repeatedly informed that jazz is an art form, America's Classical Music no less, then perhaps it's no surprise that they show indifference to the music. After all, a lot of folk just want to be entertained.

One jazz musician who is determined to bring instrumental jazz to the unconverted, convinced that it is a music for all, is David Lyttle. The MOBO Award-nominated drummer/composer from Waringstown, N. Ireland, along with Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton, is currently proving the doubters wrong, having embarked on a multi-date duo tour of off-the-beaten-track venues in Ireland.

From the end of August to mid-November, in a two-leg tour, Lyttle and Leighton will be introducing jazz to unsuspecting audiences in locations such as Ballybofey, Drumfries, Rathlin Island, Inishturk Island, Tramore, Keady Mountain, Bere Island and Ramelton.

These are destinations, with all due respect to the residents, that most Irish people outside of the respective counties may never have heard of. Ramelton has a population of twelve hundred. A hundred and sixty seven people live on Bere Island. Just seventy five on Rathlin Island—an outpost known for its bird-life.

Along the way Lyttle and Leighton will be playing in community halls and in pubs more used to traditional Irish music, in restaurants, hotels, cafés and bars accustomed to country music. Larger stops on the tour like Portadown and Lisburn---where jazz gigs are still as rare as hen's teeth—will see the duo play in a Town Hall and an art gallery.

These are locations that simply don't feature on the touring circuit, and where jazz music above all, is something foreign. It follows that many in the audiences will likely be unfamiliar with this sort of jazz—a drum-and-guitar improvising duo. It's a proposition that excites Lyttle: "I was thinking the other day about how a lot of people will be hearing jazz for the first time on this tour. It's as close as we can get to the feeling some of the pioneers, especially the bebop originators, would have had."

Thirty-four-year-old Lyttle has been plying his trade as a jazz drummer for fifteen years, and has collaborated with the likes of Seamus Blake, Jean Toussaint, Soweto Kinch, Kenny Werner, Gwilym Simcock, Dave Liebman and Jason Rebello. For his 2015 album, Faces—released on his own Lyte Records label—Lyttle secured the services of Joe Lovano and rapper Talib Kweli.

Rolling Stone described that recording as "genre-spanning...sophisticated and sharp." Lyttle's drumming is a cross between Art Blakey and Ari Hoenig, with subtle Irish rhythms coloring his rhythmic palette—the result of playing bodhrán and mini Lambeg drum in the family band as he was growing up. Lyttle's drumming, in short, is thrilling, seductive and original.

Leighton, who holds down a weekly residency in Bennigans in Derry, is just starting out. The twenty-one-year-old Derry guitarist impressed with his own trio at Belfast's Brilliant Corners jazz festival in March 2018 and has just completed a year studying at Trinity Laban in London. Leighton, a technically gifted guitarist with finely tuned melodic and rhythmic sensibilities, came onto Lyttle's radar several years ago when the then sixteen-year-old guitarist went to one of Lyttle's gigs in Derry. "He was more interested in rock and fusion back then and I began steering him towards straight-ahead jazz," recounts Lyttle. "I told him about guitarists like Peter Bernstein and Jesse van Ruller."

Leighton went on to study with van Ruller, and Lyttle too, when the drummer was Artist-In-Residence at The Nerve Centre, Derry, in 2015. "Joseph is a very special talent," says Lyttle. "I've watched him work incredibly hard and get better and better month by month. The reason I picked Joseph for this project is because he's a very good solo guitarist, playing melody and chords but also improvising, which is incredibly hard. He's always had a natural talent for that. For us to play as a duo like we are on this tour it's important to have some of those skills."

Though some die-hard jazz fans will undoubtedly turn out for some of the gigs on this Irish tour, the majority of those attending will probably be unfamiliar with Lyttle and Leighton. They are, however, in for a treat. They may not know that they're seeing one of the world's great contemporary drummers and, in Leighton—as his own trio gigs demonstrate—one of the brightest guitar talents to come out of Ireland in years, but they'll certainly know they're witnessed something special.

The tour is undoubtedly romantic, but the hard fact, perhaps surprisingly, is that Lyttle and Leighton will not only not lose money on this tour, but will come away with money in their pockets. Each of the venues, it transpires, has agreed a fee with the duo.

How have Lyttle and Leighton pulled this off? How have they managed to literally sell jazz to the unconverted?

There are no sponsors involved—the two musicians have organized this tour by themselves. Nor have they embraced the usual social media routes of email and Facebook to approach venues. A rather more old-fashioned method has done the trick: "You have to pick up the phone," says Lyttle, "especially if you're trying to play some of these places. They're not going to get back to you on Facebook," he laughs.

Making personal contact with venue owners, as Lyttle notes, has been key in setting up this tour. Without exception, Lyttle relates, the venues are very happy to be hosting a jazz drum-and-guitar duo. Lyttle is convinced that this enthusiasm is primarily because such remote, off-the-circuit venues simply don't get a lot of entertainment. "They're excited to have us," Lyttle confirms.

Inevitably, however, not every phone call resulted in a booking. "In one place the manager said they were more about trad [traditional Irish music] and country music and there's only so much convincing you can do," admits Lyttle. "In that particular place a more open-minded person would have given it a go and I know it would have worked."

This tour of unlikely venues and low-key locations was inspired by a tour Lyttle made of the United States with saxophonist Tom Harrison in 2017. Arriving on the West Coast, Lyttle bought a red Cadillac Deville, which carried the duo from one unlikely destination—as far as instrumental jazz goes—to another, including a stop near Area 51. The project, funded by a generous grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, was intended to test the theory that jazz can only be appreciated by educated ears. "We proved that that wasn't the case," Lyttle confirms.

"The America road-trip took us to all these very unusual, off-the-wall places. It was a serious novelty for us. We played for a lot of different people, cowboys, UFO tourists and bikers and we were very well received," says Lyttle. "Even if some people didn't really appreciate the music or weren't touched by it on a deep level by it, they could still sense that this is something that we are extremely dedicated to, and they respected us for that. Of course, driving a Cadillac across America also commands respect over there."

One of the most outré performances on the USA tour, the like of which will almost definitely not be replicated on the Irish tour, took place in the desert near Reno. The composition, relates Lyttle, without a hint of devilment, was a ballad for saxophone and Ar-15, the semi-automatic rifle described as 'America's rifle' by the National Association of Rifles.

In a 2016 article in The New York Times, journalist Alan Feuer described it as "one of the most beloved and vilified rifles in the country." Some estimates put the number of Ar-15 rifles privately owned in the United States at around owned ten million. Securing one for the performance recorded to camera was as easy as securing a second-hand Cadillac.

"There are a few different ways of looking at that," says Lyttle of the unusual performance, which took place in the desert and without an audience, "The Ar-15 was used as an improvising instrument. It was a piece I wrote, a beautiful jazz ballad written for saxophone and Ar-15." It was, essentially, an artistic statement. Lyttle expands: "There's definitely a serious gun problem in America. I think most people would admit that, yet the AR-15 is the home's defence weapon of choice. Using that in the context of the music we were reflecting on an important sub-culture of America, and for people to see the brutality of it as well."

A video of the performance is readily available on Youtube, but if Lyttle had imagined that his and Harrison's artistic statement with an AR-15 would trigger an impassioned social media debate, then he was mistaken. "I thought it might have got a bit of public discussion going but most of the comments were like 'Oh, an Ar-15, cool!' or 'Nice idea'. I think it was maybe just too far out there," says Lyttle laughing.

The success of the USA road-trip provoked some serious thought in Lyttle as to the whole notion of touring jazz and audience profiles in Ireland. "We felt that we really should be doing that here, or potentially anywhere," he says.

Although the Irish tour with Leighton is less of an artistic statement than the USA tour, which set out, in the country that birthed jazz, to confront specific sub-cultures largely unfamiliar with the music, the principle is the same. For Lyttle, the conviction is strong that audiences unaccustomed to jazz can still appreciate the music. Of course, the entire process of putting together a tour into the hinterlands is no walk in the park.

Lyttle is the first to admit that there's a lot of hard work involved in making such a tour happen. On a tour of Canada in February 2018, Lyttle even gave a lecture at the University of Toronto entitled Jazz Survival Tactics, where he spoke of the harsh realities of life as a jazz musician, while giving advice on how to make a go of it.

"It's difficult," Lyttle admits. "It's always been difficult, but today, even though we have access to the internet, a lot of musicians find it hard to organize a tour. A lot of musicians don't tour until they're really big and a lot of them don't reach that sort of profile."

For Leighton, this Irish tour is more than just playing duo gigs, for with Lyttle's encouragement, the Derry guitarist has also been pro-active in seeking venues and securing bookings. "It's been an interesting exercise for him to learn how to hustle and do these things," says Lyttle. "There are a lot of factors to becoming a well-known jazz musician. When you're young you just want to play and you find a way to do it. But it takes a while to get into the mentality of planning ahead."

Arming young musicians with the confidence and the know-how to book their own gigs from the very start of their careers is one of the most important aspects of Lyttle's mentoring role to a number of highly talented young musicians coming up on the Irish jazz scene. Two such musicians are twin brothers Michael and Connor Murray, based in Falcarragh, Donegal but currently studying in Tommy Smith's jazz programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. "I think I've inspired the Murrays in that they're doing these little dates around Donegal," says Lyttle. "They're becoming very well known in that area and people love them."

Lyttle first came across the young, teenage Murrays at the Sligo Jazz Project in 2013, since when they have not only started to organize their own gigs, but to book gigs for others, including no less a name than Kurt Rosenwinkel. Back in May, the modern-day guitar icon played two gigs with Lyttle, one in Bennigans during the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival and the other in Glasgow. "I had the twins promote the Glasgow gig," explains Lyttle. "That was only their second or third go at being jazz promoters so they were sort of legends in Glasgow for being the lads who brought Kurt to town."

Going from strength to strength, the Murrays will inaugurate their own jazz festival, The Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival, in December 2018, headlined by the Jesse van Ruller Trio. Lyttle is full of admiration for the Murrays' achievement. "They've raised the money for the festival totally independently—no funding whatsoever. It's kind of exciting. They're very good young musicians but they also have the hustle to make stuff happen." Lyttle, of course, is helping the Murrays, just as he's helping Leighton learn about the business and promotion side of jazz. "These guys all have huge potential and I can make it a bit easier on them than it was on me in my early twenties, because it's tough out there."

Lyttle acknowledges the work and the strides that the Murrays, Leighton, as well as musicians like Jack Kelly and James Anderson, have made. "They've put in five, six years of very hard work, and they're still incredibly young. Jack's twenty, all the other guys are twenty one. It's great and amazing to have been there from the start with a lot of these guys. These guys work so hard and you can tell that, yeah, they could be out there on an international level, which is very exciting."

Just a couple of weeks before the duo tour with Leighton kicked off, Lyttle played a quartet gig in Bennigans with the guitarist and the Murray brothers. "Everybody felt that the guys had just made a breakthrough and I felt the same," says Lyttle. "So, next year we're going to do a quartet tour of theatres. I knew that we'd get to the stage where we'd play professionally but I didn't think it would be this soon. They are all fundamentally self-taught, and I'm the same. It's exciting because there aren't that many opportunities in Northern Ireland."

Lyttle is a case in point, carving himself a career where he plays around one hundred and fifty to two hundred gigs a year, mostly outside Ireland. This year, besides the Canadian tour, the drummer will make four trips to London, hold a New York residency, play various gigs throughout Europe and make no fewer than four trips to China. In China, Lyttle has once more been reaching out to audiences for whom jazz is not an overly familiar music.

"In China jazz is still a new thing. They have fancy jazz clubs that could be Ronnie Scotts, like the Blue Note, but I think they don't quite have the same connection to the music that we do. Ireland has Louis Stewart. The United States has all the legends. Every country in Europe has a jazz hero, but China doesn't really have that yet because it's quite new to them. The connection is a bit strange for me; they appreciate the virtuosity but it's still like a foreign music."

In 2017, Lyttle made several trips to China, spending six weeks there. In Suzhou he collaborated in a studio with renowned Chinese traditional musicians. Lyttle admits, however, that touring China wasn't always easy. "In Beijing, Shanghai you hear English, you see Westerners, but where I was there was no English. There were no signs in English, no-one was speaking English apart from my interpreter so it's very immersive and you're very cut off. You can't get on English websites, you can't get on Twitter or any of that stuff, so music really is your tool of communication. It's all you have. It was tough."

To break down some of the barriers, Lyttle came up with a fresh idea. "I wanted to find a way to better connect with Chinese audiences, so for my solo drum show I wrote a story about my experiences in China and I had it read in Mandarin by a friend. We recorded it on tape and I improvise drums to it and that has become a thing."

It certainly is becoming a thing. For their inaugural Falcarragh Winter Jazz Festival in December, the Murray brothers have asked Lyttle to do a drum and tape show in Gaelic. "Part of the commission which I'm going to get from the festival, which I've sort of self-imposed," relates Lyttle, "is that I have to study the language so that I can actually follow the story; an elderly man from Falcarragh is going to read his thoughts on how Donegal has changed over the years. I'm trying to get a grasp of the language so that I can respond to it. I've got four months to do that," Lyttle says laughing.

It's all part of Lyttle's armoury in reaching out to an audience and attempting to make a connection. His work too, with Live Music Now—a UK charity that uses music to reach and stimulate a diverse range of people who don't ordinarily get access to live music, such as the elderly and young children with special educational needs—has taught Lyttle more about the value and challenges of reaching out.

"Some of the performances can be very challenging, says Lyttle. "You might be playing to a room full of elderly people with dementia, or maybe for people who are not in a very good place and don't really want you there and cover their ears when you're playing, or else shout at you," he laughs. "That stuff makes you stronger. It is also very satisfying and very rewarding, because amidst all that you start to notice that you're bringing some happiness as well to people."

All being well, the duo of Lyttle and Leighton will be bringing a little happiness and well-being to audiences on their Irish tour, no matter how far-flung or unusual the venue, and no matter how small the audience. "It may look weird but it's still a jazz tour," says Lyttle. "The music won't be compromised for any of these places and it won't need to be. I worked out early on that you can do almost anything in a well-presented show. Thinking about the pace and the order of the pieces, making the audience feel good and helping them connect to the music if it's more challenging, maybe by telling them about the piece and where it came from. These are things I learnt from performing with my family when I was a child—things that more jazz musicians need to think about."

Playing jazz to fresh ears, Lyttle has discovered, brings its own rewards. "I think some of the most touching compliments are from people who don't know much about jazz. I'll often get people saying they thought they didn't like jazz but now they do. That's really special because you've actually changed someone's life—in a small way but a beautiful way."

Equally rewarding for Lyttle, is the fact that this Irish tour is an entirely independent effort. "The tour is completely unfunded and we're doing okay. I'll happily accept funding but I do think if you can't do your thing without funding something is not quite right." In fact, the funding Lyttle got from the Arts council of Northern Ireland for his USA road-trip project was the first time he had ever received that sort of support. "It was fantastic to receive that kind of support and endorsement for my work," acknowledges Lyttle, "but I stayed independent for fifteen years before getting into that kind of thing. You have to find a way to do whatever it is you do independently too."

Whilst Lyttle is approaching this Irish tour as he would any other, musically speaking, it's still special in other regards. "I'm very passionate and caring about what I do. Part of it is sharing the music and part of it is trying to break down these misconceptions about the music. On the islands people might be appreciative that we've come. I'm interested in seeing their home, seeing where they live and how they live. We'll play for the schools, it's not just like another tour date for us—it's not really about that. I think if you can convey that then it becomes a bit more meaningful for them."

The template of this Irish tour maybe points the way for young, up-and-coming jazz musicians, as well as more veteran practitioners, to forge a career and play more than just a handful of dates. It's perhaps also an alternative to the obligation that many musicians feel to teach in order to pay the rent. "I really do believe that," affirms Lyttle. "It's becoming harder and harder to make a living from recorded music and the city experience is becoming more and more difficult. It's just so expensive to live. Also, because the city has been so culturally relevant, these small places have been overlooked."

For Lyttle, the touring is in the blood. "Touring is how you reach your heights. That's why all the great players that we all admire are so good, because they're constantly touring. They're not just playing concerts here and there, they're going on tour, going deeper and deeper and getting better every night.

"I don't have a problem being out there performing two hundred gigs a year—that's what I always wanted to do. It's also a return to what it used to be. If you go back to the 1920s and 1930s and you think of someone like Robert Johnson—even before jazz as we know it—who travelled from town to town playing for whatever he could get—room, board, booze, a bit of money, and then he moved onto the next town. He was sort of a folk hero rather than a celebrity. Later, jazz bands had their own buses and trains. They were constantly on the road and they played everywhere."

This Irish tour then, sees Lyttle and Leighton reconnecting with time-honored tradition. "It's a return to an old-fashioned existence as a musician," says Lyttle, "and I think that's great."

For details of David Lyttle and Joseph Leighton's duo tour into the hinterlands of Ireland check out David Lyttle's website

Photo Credit: Paul Brown

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