Lyte Records: Dancing To Different Beats

Ian Patterson By

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It has to be soulful, in the sense of being heartfelt. It has to have a lot of depth to it —David Lyttle
Since its inception in 2007, Lyte Records has earned a reputation as one of the very best labels in Ireland/Northern Ireland for independent jazz artists and creative musicians of various stripes. What started out as a very small, personal concern for Lyte Records founder David Lyttle has grown into something much bigger; international recognition came Lyte Records' way for a jazz/hip-hop crossover album and the attention of producer Quincy Jones has changed the life of one young musician on the label in particular. "It's the best of both worlds," says Lyttle. "I get a real buzz out of the music and I enjoy the business side a lot too."

Lyttle is one of the top jazz drummers/composers in Ireland and is highly respected in the UK and America too, having performed with saxophonists Dave Liebman, Jean Toussaint and Greg Osby. His touring schedule is usually pretty hectic so it's a wonder he ever found time to set up a record label in the first place, though it was basically a logical step: "Generally it's the same kind of story with most musicians who set up a label," says Lyttle, "they're not at the stage where they can get a big record deal and they don't think a smaller deal is going to be very useful." Thus, Lyte Records came into being when Lyttle wanted to release his debut recording, True Story (Lyte Records, 2007).

With his first record Lyttle chose to fly under the radar: "The first record didn't have distribution at that point and I didn't really want it either," he explains. "I just didn't think I was ready. I was happy with the album but at the same time I didn't want to make a big deal out of it." When Lyttle did try to get distribution for his record he had to make his first executive decision: "I had two offers. One of the companies was very good for jazz. It had a label, it had publishing, PR, everything. They were interested but only if it was jazz. They suggested I set up a label for other stuff."

Other stuff for Lyttle can mean quite a diverse range of music, from blues and classical to hip-hop. The idea of being hemmed in to just one genre of music—or even one genre of jazz—simply didn't appeal: "It kind of went against my whole idea of what I want, which is basically to have a structure and a brand for good, honest music. It has to be soulful, in the sense of being heartfelt. It has to have a lot of depth to it."

One young musician in the Lyte Record stable with a lot of soul and depth is Limerick-based Slovakian guitarist Andreas Varady, a virtuoso reared in the gypsy jazz tradition of guitarist Django Reinhardt: "I first met Andreas Varady in 2009 I believe. He'd sent me a message on YouTube just saying he'd love to play with me." At the time Varady was eleven years old. "I thought, oh, it's just some kid," recalls Lyttle. "You do get a lot of messages like that from young artists because you have a label but I checked out the video and he was playing [guitarist] George Benson style. He needed a bit of refining but he was pretty impressive."

Lyttle and Varady started playing together and Lyttle set up projects with other musicians. It wasn't long before other labels started showing an interest in signing the young virtuoso. Lyttle talked with Varady's parents and together they came to the conclusion that, like Lyttle himself a few years earlier, a low-key start would be in Varady's best interests: "We thought Andreas wasn't really ready to release a big album and it's easy for someone as young as that to get exploited, so we decided to release an album ourselves under Lyte records."

That album, Questions (Lyte Records, 2010) was a co-led project between Varady, who had just turned 13, and Lyttle, and it received very positive reviews internationally: "That really brought Andreas to an international audience," says Lyttle. It certainly did. Within a year Varady was touring as a duo with guitarist Martin Taylor and in 2013 Quincy Jones took the teenage prodigy under his wing on a tour of Europe and Asia.

Questions was the second release on Lyte records, but three years on the catalog has reached a total of twenty releases: "It's not bad for an independent label over three or four years," admits Lyttle. "I didn't really think of it as a label until the fourth or fifth album when there was a little bit of a catalog. There wasn't even a website until the fourth album. Before that it was just to release my own music, help out a friend, that sort of thing. But once you've done a few things people start asking you and reaching out and sending you stuff."

The label has taken all kinds of twists and turns that Lyttle could hardly have envisaged at the outset of the adventure and in 2012 released its first classical recording, by teenage Israeli pianist Ariel Lanyi, Romantic Profiles (Lyte Records, 2012). Lyttle had come across the then thirteen-year old Lanyi at the Sligo Jazz Project where both he and Varady were playing in a Young Jazz Project. Lyttle was impressed with the teenager's jazz chops but classical piano was really Lanyi's background and Lyttle decided to release his recitals of Schuman, Liszt, Brahms and Janacek: "He didn't want his first release to be a very aggressive release and a big label will do that with a young artist," says Lyttle. "Ariel sees himself more as a classical pianist and I saw the release as a leg up for him. It might help him get a deal with a major label if that's what he wants."

The majority of the releases on Lyte Records are by jazz artists. Some of Ireland/Northern Ireland's best known jazz musicians such as saxophonist Gay McIntyre, trumpeter Linley Hamilton and guitarists John Moriarty and Nigel Mooney are on Lyttle's label. So, is Lyte Records an Irish label? "No, not really," relies Lyttle. "Some people might see it like that but I don't want to limit the label's reach. Good music is good music anywhere."

Other significant artists on Lyte Records include pianist Jason Rebello and saxophonist Jean Toussaint, both of whom have collaborated with Lyttle before. "Jason [Rebello] was on Interlude and on a lot the gigs touring that album. He was six years with Sting and six years with Jeff Beck but now he's getting back to his own career and doing his own thing, which is great. He liked the relaxed set-up of the label." Rebellos' first major release as leader in nearly fifteen years, Anything But Look (Lyte Records, 2013), is a triumphant return to the sort of form that made his name in the first place. Its blend of soul, funk, jazz and fusion in many ways epitomizes the open-minded ethos of Lyte Records.

Toussaint and Lyttle go back together a little further: "I've probably known Jean six years or something. He's one of my heroes and he's been like a mentor to me. Jean has a very unique style, and always has had, even when he was with [drummer] Art Blakey's The Jazz Messengers in the 1980s."

Trying to run a record label in a country whose population north and south totals about 7 million people has its challenges, and to define the label as a purely jazz label would be commercially as well as artistically restrictive: "You've got to think of the audience," says Lyttle. "The people who are buying your music generally don't care about labels. If they leave you because you try something a bit different on the next album then they're not really your audience."

The blueprint has worked so far and Lyttle has no intention of narrowing Lyte Records' musical parameters: "There's a rock album on there and there's going to be a few more hip-hop things coming up and fairly full-on contemporary jazz, as well as soul and R&B."

Lyttle points out that Lyte Record releases are recorded "all over the place" and significantly for the artists Lyttle leaves the creative side of the music entirely in their hands. "Mostly I only get involved in the final stages of releasing the music, the PR and the distribution. Essentially the only thing the label doesn't do is the recording, though we have done that before. A jazz album doesn't cost that much to do so it's better if the musicians can fund it; the label obviously takes less money and it's better for everyone because there's no pressure on it to sell, which is good because it's not really about that. You don't set up a jazz record label to get rich."

Despite the positive reception Lyte Record's releases have received thus far, Lyttle is acutely aware of the challenges he faces: "It's difficult because the market is limited here, the press is limited and the audience is limited too. There's no point releasing everybody's album if the radio won't play it and the press won't review it. It's so important that the press latch on to it for the public to buy it, because ultimately it's the label's job to sell it and I don't want to lose sight of that side of it."

So far, Lyttle has proved to be highly astute in balancing artistic and commercial concerns. His ability to foster completely unknown artists and yet to also attract artists of international renown makes Lyte Records stand out from the crowd. It's been a fascinating, unpredictable journey thus far, but undoubtedly the most interesting times for Lyte Records lie ahead.

Andreas Varday/David Lyttle

Billed as a co-led recording, drummer and Lyte Records founder David Lyttle introduces the extraordinary guitarist Andreas Varady to the world on a conventional collection of standards and four original compositions. Thirteen-year old Hungarian gypsy guitarist Varady is the real star of the show, dazzling not only with his tremendous technical ability but with a touch and an emotive depth to his playing that belies his age. Varady's father Bandi Varady on rhythm guitar and bassist Michael Janisch bring considerable rhythmic oomph to the mix.

Varady wears his influences on his sleeve; guitarists George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Django Reinhardt have all left their mark on the young rising star. Varady's breezy "A Day in New York" and the bop-flavored "Blues For Edward" prove that he can also pen a decent tune. Lyttle's compositions run from the ska-influenced "True Story"—with Varady conjuring the wily spirit of the great Jamaican jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin—to the boppish "Swing Thing." Lyttle displays his own inventive chops on these two tracks, but on the whole he's content to swing the quartet.
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