The Future of NI Jazz

Graham Crothers unearths the progressive new school of NI jazz music


Born out of the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the minor chord voicings characteristic of its first cousin, the blues, the multi-faceted medium of jazz music has spawned well over two dozen distinct styles since its inception in 1920’s New Orleans.

Northern Ireland’s relationship with jazz music has long been rooted in the traditional, dixieland form, a revivalist genre performed by white musicians of classic New Orleans jazz. The Panama Jazz Band, Gerry Rice Jazz Band and the Apex Jazz Band are just a few of the ensembles who have fostered a solid reputation down the years, gigging province-wide at anywhere from countryside retreats to aboard steam trains on day trips around the country.

Aside from this, another facet of jazz music fast gaining notoriety is the smooth traditional variety. Providing the background music at many a wine bar or restaurant across the country, it's a form panned by the purists but adored by those who see it as the sophisticated soundtrack to a cosmopolitan lifestyle.

But whilst annual events like the Belfast Festival, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, City of Derry Jazz Festival, J2Z, Sonorities strive to secure performances by international artists dealing in all branches of jazz music post bop/circa 1940’s, contemporary jazz is something that has been criminally neglected at local grassroots level for quite some time, bar a few exceptions.

Intending to change all that is jazz drummer David Lyttle. He has been accredited by press and public alike as the man fit for spearheading the new wave of contemporary jazz artists emerging from the capital.

Orchestrating a number of ensembles, the most prolific being the David Lyttle Group, Lyttle has a maturity well beyond his years and has set his sights upon going pro.

‘There are so many different musicians and I try and get them involved as much as possible.’ Lyttle explains. ‘It's really to establish which musicians I work best with. It also makes it more interesting if you have got different groups on the go.'

Established in the summer of 2005 by Lyttle and several other jazz musicians, is a website designed to raise a greater awareness of the talent splitting the seams of the city's musical fabric.

'Recently in the past year the scene in Belfast has really picked up. That was set up to make people aware of the musician side of jazz music and that there actually is a jazz scene here.’

The recent demise of Jazz at Whites Tavern has spurred the collective on to establishing that much needed jazz venue for the capital, something that Lyttle ensures will materialise in the forthcoming months.

Conceived by Lyttle and jazz guitarist Joel Byrne McCullough, Jazz at Whites had what Lyttle called a ‘proper jazz club environment’ drawing numbers varying from nine on a dismal night to 70 on a resoundingly successful night.

‘We would play a 45-minute set then we would take a break, socialise, and then we play another set. So it was very much a performance set up in the true traditional jazz club. There are a lot of residencies around town that people have as more like background music. That’s not what we are trying to do at all.’

With more new jazz musicians in Belfast than there has ever been before Lyttle feels there is an onus on the musicians rather than the promoters to forge an appreciation of the genre.

‘I think it's our job to create a scene. We need to create a scene for the music we are playing and the first step is to have a solid venue.’

Check the work of Mark McKnight, young pianist Scott Flanigan, Alan Niblock and Linley Hamilton and you‘ll soon realise that jazz in Belfast has, most definitely, colour in its cheeks.

‘If you listen to jazz it takes a certain amount of priming. It's like people need to get worked into it. If you were to take one of your friends out to one of my gigs who hasn’t listened to jazz, they might be put off.

‘You need to take your friends to accessible mainstream jazz gigs and then follow that with a slightly more creative gig and then build from there. To establish a good jazz scene the music needs to be more accessible. At the same time you don’t want to undervalue the music because making it accessible just to please people is never what jazz has been about. It's always been about expression. So it's an uphill task.’

Considering jazz music's largely underground status it can be difficult to make a dime or two out of it, something that Lyttle is more than familiar with. Bearing that in mind he admits he may perhaps be tempted to follow in the footsteps of musicians such as Linley Hamilton who has shown quite the entrepreneurial streak, utilizing jazz as commercial enterprise. Aside from occasionally playing with Van Morrison, Hamilton runs his own entertainment company and music workshop teaching youngsters about rock and pop music.

Despite his impressive contacts and academic credentials, Lyttle hopes he won't be abandoning Northern Ireland any time soon if he can help it.

‘I am certainly trying to help the scene. I’m not the sort of person that would just move to New York and have a really good jazz career. The problem in the past here has been that the few good players playing in a modern style have moved off because the scene wasn’t happening.’

The profile of mainstream straight ahead jazz is set to soar thanks to establishments like The Riverside Jazz Foundation, who pair promising local talent alongside the best the world has to offer. The Foundation's events are the perfect place for music fans to find their jazz feet.

Lyttle’s last great hope is that one day those with power and influence in the province might recognise and realise the need for education workshops and summer schools about jazz music. It's only then that the versatile nature of the genre can be demystified and unravelled and it's only then that we will have a fighting chance to prevent a possible mass exodus of local gifted musicians.

Blue Monk (3.06 Mb, MP3). Listen to some of David Lyttle's solo melodic drumming. Using a simple four piece drum kit, he plays the drum head with one stick whilst applying pressure to the same head with an elbow or remaining drum stick. If you enjoy this track then check out New York drummer Ari Hoenig, the inventor of this concept and major influence on David's approach to melodic drumming.

Roof Space (9.17 Mb, MP3). David Lyttle Four feat. Michael Buckley:
Michael Buckley, tenor sax; Phil Ware, piano; Dave Redmond, bass; David Lyttle, drums. Recorded live at The Boom Boom Room (Dublin) on 16th March 2006.