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David Lyttle: Leading Jazz Into The Hinterlands

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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