A Christmas Carol

David Lyttle's jazzy take on a Christmas classic warms hearts

It may be a miserable evening - rain pours forth from the sky soaking everything and everyone - but No Alibis bookstore on Belfast's Botanic Avenue is full of festive cheer. Fairy-lights are arranged in the window and the interior of the shop is illuminated by candles - which is entirely appropriate, as tonight we are here to be brought back in time by jazz percussionist David Lyttle's musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Those who are not feeling particularly full of seasonal goodwill are given a hearty shove in the right direction when the mince pies and shortcake are offered round, and within moments of entering the store this feels less like a gig or performance and more like a family gathering. 

Before long, Peter Hutchinson, resplendent in faux-Dickensian attire, strides to the front and begins reading the text. At this point, the horror sets in - we are going to hear the entirety of A Christmas Carol, read from the beginning to the end, with no escape.

Beginning to feel uncomfortable, and dreading the enforced Christmas cheer that is surely to come, suddenly the seat seems too small, there’s too little leg-room, it’s too hot, it’s too cold ... anything to find an excuse to get out. Never particularly fond of the smug nostalgia of Christmas, Dickens in particular, a sense of dread fills my bones.

However, as the first reading comes to an end, the musicians come to life, punctuating this well-worn Christmas fable with their own musical take on the story. 

Lyttle, accompanied by Irish saxophonist Matthew Halpin, Belfast guitarist Mark McKnight and US bassist Dan Bodwell, exhibit the superlative musicianship that has led to Mr Lyttle becoming one of the leading lights in Northern Irish jazz. 

Breathtakingly accomplished, the quartet conjure an atmosphere which seems to perfectly suit the setting and the context. Within moments, this over-familiar Christmas tale becomes something new, something captivating. Just as the ghosts that haunt Ebeneezer Scrooge bring an otherworldly presence to the proceedings, David Lyttle and his band begin to haunt the narrative, with Peter Hutchinson’s reading becoming more and more vital as the evening progresses.

By the end of the first half, the audience is completely captivated, David Lyttle and company having managed a remarkable achievement - both the music and the reading have gained equal importance, both competing for prominence.

Indeed, I would be hard pushed to say which I enjoyed more, having discovered a newfound admiration for the original Dickens, courtesy of Peter Hutchinson’s inspired reading or marvelling at the devastatingly good musicianship of David Lyttle’s accomplished quartet, who at times recall Vince Guaraldi’s inspired music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, not so much in sound, but in feel. It was cold outside, but there was a real warmth inside.

We left, full of the joys of Christmas and with hope in our hearts. As Tiny Tim exclaimed, 'God bless us, every one!', and it was hard not to agree with him. 

Steven Rainey