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."



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