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David Lyttle: Leading Jazz Into The Hinterlands

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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