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David Lyttle: Leading Jazz Into The Hinterlands

Ian Patterson By

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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.
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