David Lyttle Band

Lee Henry gets a wake up call with the David Lyttle jazz band

I must admit to a certain apprehension on my way to see the David Lyttle Band in McHugh’s Bar.

Jazz isn’t really my forte and I had visions of the basement bar chock full of hazy, lazy, laidback types with cigarette holders dangling from their lower lips, Frenchmen lounging at the bar in berets discussing the merits of avant-jazz and a sprinkling of art critics clicking their fingers along with the beat proclaiming ‘Hey!’, ‘Dig it!’ and ‘Nice!’ with every unexpected key change.

Of course, this was a somewhat blinkered approach to my first ever jazz gig in Belfast, and perhaps I should have been a little more open minded.

Nevertheless, I eased in through the door in my double-breasted reefer jacket, flicked my hair to the side, bought a pint of Guinness at the bar – white wine was just out of the question - and slumped down in a chair between two groups of audience members like a world-weary connoisseur here on a whim.David Lyttle Band, by John Baucher

I soon realised that such a front was superfluous. Granted, I did see one middle-aged man wearing a beret, but he wasn’t French, and actually turned out to be a thoroughly nice chap.

No doubt there were connoisseurs dotted here and there but they gave off no air of pretension, and the majority of punters I chatted with were there to hear some live jazz merely because, thanks to the good people at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, they could.

David Lyttle is the poster boy for NI jazz. At only 22 years of age he has played with some of the world’s finest jazz musicians and trained with the best of New York’s drummers.

Decked out in a tweed jacket slightly too large for his schoolboy frame, he shows no sign of nerves as he checks the mic levels and settles in for an evening of, as he describes it, ‘straight-ahead, contemporary jazz’.

Adept at reading and writing music, Lyttle composes his own pieces, introduces the tunes like an old hand and allows his supporting artists – on this occasion New York jazz guitarist Dave Allen and Irish Hammond organist Justin Carroll - the chance to run free over his initial chord structures.

Lyttle also knows how to make an audience feel at home, and the names of some of his songs, such as ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Man From The Three-Legged Race’, receive warm chuckles from every corner of the room.

David Lyttle Band, by John BaucherI was worried that this gig might turn out to be something of a lesson in free-form gymnastics, two hours of disjointed time signatures, scattered beats and conceited note collages that only the most ardent disciples of Miles Davis would fully understand or appreciate.

But that is not the type of jazz that Lyttle extols. His is a more ‘middle of the road’ jazz experience, comprehensible, accessible, what I would call 'Woody Allen' jazz, as opposed to 'David Lynch' jazz.

Keeping a steady beat for long periods – allowing the audience to indulge in some sprightly toe tapping and head bopping – Lyttle provided Allen and Carroll ample space to show what they were made of, and the syncopation between all three musicians was frankly scary.

At times – inevitably, I would say – one of the three would choose the wrong tack and lose himself for a bar or two. But without looking at each other, without any sort of nod or sign, the other two would manage to pull him back into the mix with a sudden crash of cymbals and the beautiful, laidback equilibrium was restored.

Although the crowd were treated to continual improvisations from Allen and Carroll, it was Lyttle who received most praise for his improvisational techniques. Using his elbow as a third stick on the kettle drum and showing incredible levels of concentration as he rattled off deft cymbal solos whilst effortlessly keeping time, the Armagh man left many audience members speechless and showed that his really is a world class talent.   

Jazz in NI has had a hard time of late, with jazz nights falling by the wayside in places like Whites Tavern and The Spaniard. But with a new residency secured in the Black Box every Wednesday, Lyttle is doing his best to keep the art form alive this side of NYC. It might be an uphill struggle, but after tonight I’m firmly of the opinion that if anyone can, Lyttle can.