David Lyttle's Urban Interlude

The jazz wunderkind's new album features hip-hop guests and himself on vocals – but he'll always beat the drum

Drummer, singer, songwriter, keyboard player, bassist, impresario, producer, classical cellist, PhD in Musicology. Waringstown’s David Lyttle is a veritable Renaissance man of modern music, his dazzling array of talents defying easy categorisation.

Does he ever, I wonder, wake up in the morning with a feeling of identity crisis? ‘Not really,’ Lyttle chuckles. ‘I think if I was doing just one thing I’d probably be a bit bored.’

He does, however, admit that the business of precisely defining his job in life is very much a work in progress. ‘If you’d asked me last year,’ he smiles, 'I’d have said drummer or record label executive. This year it feels more like musician, producer, something like that.’

That’s partly because Lyttle has just released his second solo album, Interlude, on which, in addition to playing many of the instruments, he also wrote the music, co-engineered the sessions, and collaborated with Mike Buckley on the mix-down afterwards.

Oddly, despite Lyttle’s Herculean involvement in putting the nine tracks together, Interlude is far from being a conventional solo record. No fewer than eight different vocalists feature, solo and in various combinations, ranging from Lyttle’s mother Ann and sister Rhea, to rappers Soweto Kinch, Homecut, iLLspokinN and Derry-Londonderry’s Wile Man.

Rap is a heavy influence on the album, and its inclusion marks a significant shift for Lyttle away from the purist jazz arena in which he has so far built his considerable reputation, mainly as a drummer, towards a more mainstream, hip-hop-inspired sound.

Interlude is a very different album,’ Lyttle comments, comparing it to True Story, his 2007 jazz debut. ‘It’s more of an urban thing. That’s the word I’m using – there’s a bit of hip-hop, rap, soul, with a jazz influence.’

The jazz influence on Interlude comes as much from the sound of the ‘real instruments’ (drums, piano, double bass, clarinet, soprano sax, among others) used in its creation, as from the chord changes in the songs that Lyttle has written.

‘Hip-hop played in an acoustic way,' is how Lyttle himself puts it, without the dehumanising phalanx of digital sequencers and samplers frequently utilised to generate a backbeat in the contemporary recording studio.

Lyttle is, however, far from being Luddite in his approach to harnessing new technologies in the making of a modern music record. The vocal contributions of iLLspokinN and Soweto Kinch were, for instance, done not in the Dublin studio where Lyttle masterminded the recording process, but in Brooklyn and London respectively, after Lyttle had emailed soundfiles of the backing tracks.

For Lyttle, creating music by email is a liberating process artistically. ‘You can have musicians from all over the world do an album,’ he enthuses. ‘Before, you’d need a deal with a major label, with them sticking a 100 grand into your record to fly people in, put them up et cetera.’

With so many guest artists performing on the album (pianist Jason Rebello and bassist Pino Palladino are among the other world-class musicians featured), did Lyttle ever feel that his own artistic identity was in any way being diluted?

‘No, not really,’ he replies thoughtfully. 'For me, it’s more of a producer's approach, you know. Looking back now, I was sort of following this idea of someone like Mark Ronson, who produces and plays all the instruments and writes the music. But bring out an album and it’ll be a different singer, a different vocalist. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. On Interlude, I think it’s worked.’

Lyttle and co-producer Buckley have also paid close attention to how the finished record sounds over earphones or hi-fi speakers. ‘We wanted it to sound very clean,’ he comments. ‘I don’t like things to be too cluttered in the mix, so everything is very clear and clean. Every instrument has its own place, there’s not a load of stuff going on.’

“The Road', a laid-back slice of jazz-rap fusion, is, says Lyttle, probably his own favourite selection from the album. ‘It’s my first vocal feature!’ he explains. ‘That first chorus is me. It’s very brief. I do like it, because I never really thought I would do that!’

Nor, till a couple of years back, would Lyttle probably ever have envisaged being the owner of a fully functioning record company. LYTE Records Ltd is entirely Lyttle’s own creation, and already has ten releases to its credit, including Questions, Lyttle’s stunning collaboration with teenage jazz guitar prodigy, Andreas Varady.

‘The label is important,’ says Lyttle, ‘because it’s showcasing Irish artists. It’s very fair, and not run by some guy trying to make money off the musicians. It’s more of a club, that’s the way I see it.’

LYTE’s original mission was to ‘prioritise new music and new artists’, and it was in no way intended by Lyttle as a personal vanity project. The experience of establishing the company has, however, worked very much to his advantage in bringing Interlude to fruition.

‘I wasn’t aware of it at the time,’ says Lyttle, ‘but working on the label for the past two or three years, what I was doing was building a structure – a distribution deal, social networking, all the marketing stuff, the business side of things. So now that I’m ready to release Interlude everything’s set up. It’s my label, and I own all the rights for it. If I didn’t have that I’d be trying to get a record deal to get the album out.’

And though Interlude’s title suggests an experimental time-out in Lyttle’s ongoing artistic development, rather than a permanent change of musical direction, he is keen to push his exploration of the urban idiom further, writing new songs, curating albums, and developing his vocals.

Might this lead to Lyttle eventually abandoning jazz together? Listening to him talk lovingly about ‘the tone of the music, the way the drums are played, the double bass, the actual sound of real instruments, the fact that jazz is 80% improvised', it seems highly unlikely.

Interlude, Lyttle’s urban excursion, undoubtedly takes the Waringstown musician’s career in an exciting new direction. ‘The poster boy for NI jazz,’ as one writer mischievously dubbed him, is, however, almost certainly not ready to relinquish that hard-earned sobriquet just yet.