David Lyttle's Many Faces

Jazz drummer, songwriter, label owner and now newly unveiled artist in residence at the Nerve Centre in Derry – is there anything David Lyttle can't do?

David Lyttle, newly unveiled as the Nerve Centre's artist in residence for 2015 and recently reviewed in Rolling Stone, no less, must surely be the most eclectic musician in Northern Ireland.

He first toured and recorded as a child playing Irish folk music with the Lyttle Family, and subsequently became an internationally renowned jazz drummer. His last album, 2012’s Interlude, however, was an urban album while his latest, Faces, includes elements of jazz, hip hop, dance, pop and classical music.

And, as further evidence of his versatility, Lyttle not only plays drums on the album but also cello, bass and keyboards, sings lead on two tracks and wrote, or co-wrote, all ten tracks.

‘From about age 19 to 25, I only listened to jazz and only played jazz,’ Lyttle recalls. ‘I think you have to do that, you have to immerse yourself in that language, to play it well and to understand it. But prior to that I was listening to a lot of other music and recently I’ve been going back and listening to some of that stuff again, going back to the 1970s and listening to anything from singer-songwriters to soul music or whatever.'

That reconnection with other forms of music has, perhaps inevitably, fed in to Lyttle's new album. ‘On Faces there are, on different tracks, a lot of styles of music that I’ve listened to,' Lyttle confirms, 'and that’s quite satisfying because each track makes me happy for different reasons.’

Its diversity makes Faces unusual in the modern music market place. Lyttle concedes that he is somewhat out-of-step with prevailing orthodoxy.

‘In this day and age, it’s hard enough to sell albums, so you’re encouraged to be focussed, but maybe in the music industry today we’ve lost variety and experimentation both in writing and interpretation. The songs on Faces could have been interpreted in a more consistent style but they just developed, organically, with diverse settings.’

The album begins unusually with ‘Intro’, an exquisite miniature comprising a classical-sounding cello solo, composed and performed by Lyttle. He explains that two influences led to him recording this striking track.

‘I had been listening to a lot of Dr. John and most of his albums have a very dramatic intro with a lot of atmospheric sounds,’ he explains. 'And I got into a singer-songwriter called Paul Williams, who wrote ‘It’s Only Just Begun’ and ‘I Won’t Last A Day Without You’ for the Carpenters. 

'I bought an album he had recorded performing his own songs, and on ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ the cello features. It’s not something you hear very often, and I’d never really found an outlet for my cello playing, so I was inspired by him, or his arranger. A lot of different parts of the album come from trying to create things I’ve heard,’ he adds, ‘but trying to do them my own way.’

As well as being a multiinstrumentalist, Lyttle is also a master collaborator, having worked with guitar prodigies, rappers, classical musicians and more in the past. Faces features assorted distinguished collaborators, with some of the most spectacular musicianship coming from English jazz singer, Cleveland Watkiss, on the album's title track.

‘He’s one of the best improvising vocalists out there,’ enthuses Lyttle. ‘He does a thing live with a loop station where he layers his voice, and I wanted to capture that somehow, but not in an electronic way. And he suggested, “Why don’t we try to overdub a scat solo and I’ll interact with myself as I layer it up?’ And that’s what he did and it sounded great.

‘At that time I was thinking of titles for the album and I thought of the collaborations and the different elements of what I do, and the word ‘faces’ came up, so I thought that would make a good title track.’

Another mighty collaborator on the album is American jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano, whose contribution was recorded in New York. Lovano is, of course, one of the greatest names in all of American jazz, a Grammy Award-winner who has worked with the likes of McCoy Tyner, John Scofield and Michael Brecker.

‘When you work with someone on that level, and they have a sound, you’re asking them to come on board because you want that sound. It’s not like you’re hiring a session musician and you have to say, “The vibe I want on this track is...” The vibe I wanted was Joe Lovano. He just came strolling into the studio on his own, no ego, no baggage, we had a brief chat, he did a few takes and that was it, it was done.’

Four rappers contribute to the album: Talib Kweli and Illspokinn from New York, Homecut from England and Zane, a Zimbabwean who grew up and lives in Drogheda. Homecut’s rap on ‘To Be Free’ is strongly anti-capitalist and Lyttle declares himself sympathetic to the viewpoint expressed.

‘I would agree with much of his ideas,’ he admits. ‘And Talib Kweli’s very active in the black community and has been involved in protests against police brutality and I agree with that. But rap is an individual expression of your thought, so if there were things on there I didn’t agree with, it wouldn’t be a problem, so long as it wasn’t offensive.’

Lyttle has released the album on his own label, Lyte Records, which has, over the last eight years, released nearly 30 CDs by artists from the UK, Ireland, America and Europe. Running his own successful label must surely have its downsides, distracting him from his own music-making, for example. 

‘It can do, yeah,’ he concedes. ‘But what I’ve learnt is that, as a person, I have these different elements – drummer, record company owner, songwriter. I could reach a much bigger level by just focussing on one thing and only doing that but it’s not what I want to do.’

The aim for his time serving as the Nerve Centre's artist in residence for 2015 will be to inspire prospective musicians young and old in Derry and further afield. The residency, which will run throughout 2015, is funded by the PRS for Music Foundation, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Derry City and Strabane District Council through the City of Culture Legacy fund and the National Lottery via the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Throughout his tenure, Lyttle will work and collaborate with a range of musicians, songwriters, bands and producers from across the city and local area to create and perform original pieces of new music. Through its links with the burgeoning music community in the North West, the Nerve Centre will bring together a network that Lyttle will engage and collaborate with, from young emerging artists to well established musicians.

'I've been performing in Derry for almost ten years and have always been impressed and heartened by the city's love of music and high level of creativity,' says Lyttle. 'Every time I play in Derry I leave feeling great about being a musician. I'm very happy to be appointed as the Nerve Centre's Musician In Residence and I'm looking forward to collaborating with some of the city's musicians, writers and industry up-and-comers, as well as basing some of my international collaborations there.'