Drummer David Lyttle Goes Off the Beaten Track

The acclaimed musician's new tour with guitar prodigy Joseph Leighton takes jazz to rural corners of the country in search of fresh ears

When bands ‘tour Ireland’ it usually means no more than six dates in the major urban centres. Drummer David Lyttle, the Mobo-nominated jazz drummer from Waringstown, however, has a radically different vision of touring. Together with Derry guitarist Joseph Leighton, the duo are embarking on a multiple-date trek to some seriously off-the-beaten-track destinations, including Ballybofey, Rathlin Island, Keady Mountain, Ramelton and Inishturk.

‘We’ll probably attract a few jazz fans out of the woodwork but most people will be hearing this sort of jazz for the first time,’ says Lyttle. ‘It’s very exciting. It must be what it felt like for some of the legends and icons of jazz who were playing music that was very new.’

Lyttle is rapidly becoming something of a national jazz icon, but in fact, his international reputation is growing apace. The MOBO nomination raised certainly his profile, as have collaborations with contemporary jazz giants Joe Lovano and Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Joseph Leighton may be less well-known by comparison, but the 21-year old impressed at Brilliant Corners 2018 at the head of his own trio, and holds down a weekly residency in Bennigans Jazz Club, Derry. He is, in short, one of the finest guitarists to have emerged on the Irish jazz scene for some years.

Joseph Leighton

Lyttle, who knows a thing or two about good guitarists, having played in Louis Stewart’s band, is full of praise for Leighton. ‘When I first met Joseph he was 16. He was actually demonstrating guitars for an Irish guitar company called Emerald Guitars. I was impressed by him then. The reason I picked Joseph for this project is because he’s a very talented solo guitarist, playing melody and chords but also improvising, which is incredibly hard.’

Playing in a duo has its own demands, but Lyttle has been attracted to the format in recent times, conversing musically with Andreas Varady, Melaina Gillard and Tom Harrison. Indeed, the inspiration for this Irish tour to some lesser known spots came about as the result of an American road-trip that Lyttle did in 2017 as a duo with saxophonist Harrison.

That tour, it’s fair to say, was unusual in conception and in practise, with Lyttle buying a Cadillac on the East Coast and then driving 5,000 miles seeking out unsuspecting audiences.

‘We played for cowboys, UFO tourists, bikers - all sorts of people,’ explains Lyttle. ‘Even if some people don’t appreciate jazz music on a deeper level I think you could definitely sense and feel the appreciation they have for what you’re doing. For a lot of people that is inspiring and positive.’

The American road-trip with Harrison was something of a socio-musicological experiment. ‘We chose America to do that project because America is the birthplace of jazz. An Irishman and an English man going out to America, we wanted to test the theory that jazz can only be appreciated by educated ears, and we definitely proved that that wasn’t the case.’

David Lyttle Cadillac

'...we wanted to test the theory that jazz can only be appreciated by educated ears, and we definitely proved that that wasn’t the case.'

The success of the American trip in reaching people for whom jazz is not ordinarily on their radar persuaded Lyttle that the model could be transported anywhere. Whereas the American tour was largely funded, the upcoming Irish tour, some 20 dates spread over two legs, is a purely independent venture.

‘I’ll very happily accept funding,’ says Lyttle, ‘it’s nice to have but I never feel you should be doing stuff just when you get the funding. More or less, it’s me and Joseph who have organized this tour,’ he expands. ‘It’s been an interesting exercise for Joseph to learn how to hustle and do these things, because there are a lot of other factors to becoming a well-known jazz musician beyond being good on your instrument.’

Whilst the experiment in touring jazz off-the-grid in America was something of an artistic statement, the Irish tour is different in one major aspect. ‘On this tour places are very happy to have us,’ Lyttle explains. That’s not to say that Lyttle and Harrison weren’t well received across America by the outlier sub-cultures they played to, but in arriving unannounced they often had to overcome surprise, a little frostiness and, on occasion, indifference.  

Irish audiences on Tory Island, Drumfries, Inishman and elsewhere, will at least be forewarned. The majority of venue owners that Lyttle and Leighton contacted by phone to try and sell the idea of an instrumental jazz duo to were receptive. Lyttle thinks this is simply because they don’t get to experience a lot of live music. ‘They’re actually very excited to have us.’

Inevitably, perhaps, some venue owners expressed less enthusiasm. ‘In a few places the managers said they were only into Irish and Country and didn’t think it would work.’ Still, Lyttle and Leighton’s strike rate has been impressive, with over 20 gigs booked in total so far, and with the possibility of more to come.

david-lyttle-suzhou-drums

Nor will this cross-county jaunt leave the duo be out of pocket. ‘The venues are paying us so we’ll make money on the trip,’ says Lyttle. ‘I’m sure all these places will also make money and a bit more.’

Jazz these days is a many-headed beast, but Lyttle and Leighton will be serving up their arrangements of timeless jazz standards, as well as originals by Lyttle. And though the audiences they encounter might not all be overly familiar with jazz, Lyttle has no intention of patronising them. ‘For this project we don’t want to water anything down, but we also want to give the audience a rich listening experience.’

Lyttle’s tours in America and China – both experiences well documented on his website - and working with vastly diverse audiences in his role as ambassador for the UK development and outreach charity Live Music Now, has given the drummer/composer a different perspective on jazz and its perspective audiences.

'Live Music Now was a hugely important part of my musical development,' says Lyttle. 'Being a musician on the scheme not only provided with me performing experiences in unusual and challenging situations but also made me more openminded in looking for opportunities to perform. Ten years later it's a special moment for me to become an ambassador for this great charity and mentor some of their musicians. It's also exciting to collaborate with Live Music Now in bringing jazz music beyond the cities and into the country where people don't often get to hear it.

‘My attitude has changed over the years from wanting to play for people who know and appreciate the music,’ he goes on to say, ‘but after a while everyone’s an expert, which is nice, but at the same time this is entertainment, isn’t it? There’s something nice about playing for fresh ears.’

Fresh ears and for many in the audiences on this tour, fresh music. Lyttle and Leighton’s tour is a throwback to old times when jazz musicians made extended tours to far-flung corners of a county. It serves too, as an inspiring example to other musicians as to what can be achieved with a bit of forward planning, a heap of phone calls and, above all, a spirit of adventure.

David Lyttle featuring Joseph Leighton tour dates: August 22: Ballybofey; 23/08: On Air, BBC Electric Mainline; 24/08: Dumfries, The North Pole; 25/08: Letterkenny, Café Davitt; 26/08: Derry: Bennigans; 27/08: Rathlin Island: McGuaig’s; 28/08: Portadown, Town Hall; 29/08: Lisburn, R Space; 30/08: Bundoran, Maddens Bridge Bar; 31/08: Omagh, The Jazz Hole; 01.09: (3pm) Portstewart, Flowerfield Arts Centre; 01/09 (9pm): Keady Mountain, Keady Clachan; 02.09: Ramelton, Conway’s; 03/09: Malin, Lily’s Bar; 05/09: Tory Island, Tory Island Social Club; 11/11: Strandhill; 13/11: Inishturk, Inishturk Community Club; 14/11: Westport; 15/11: Inishmaan Island; 16/11: Bere Island; 18/11: Newcastle.

For further information on David Lyttle visit www.davidlyttle.com. Find more of Joseph Leighton's work at www.josephleightonmusic.com.

To learn more about the work of Live Music Now go to www.livemusicnow.org.uk.