David Lyttle: Leading Jazz Into The Hinterlands

Ian Patterson By

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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."
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