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David Lyttle: Leading Jazz Into The Hinterlands

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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