David Lyttle Trio

The acclaimed jazz drummer kicks off a 15-date Irish tour in Belfast's Leaf & Berry café

SD Bell & Co Ltd has been roasting coffee in Belfast for over 125 years. For the last four years, the family-run business has branched out into live music, serving up the best in homegrown jazz and blues in its Leaf & Berry café, and they don’t come much better than drummer David Lyttle.

The gig marks the return to a jazz trio for the Waringstown man after almost two years touring and promoting his critically acclaimed album Interlude, Lyttle’s venture into the juncture between the urbane rhythms of hip-hop and contemporary jazz, featuring heavyweights Jason Rebello and Soweto Kinch.

Belfast marks the first of 15 back-to-back gigs North and South that take Lyttle, bassist Neil O’Loghlen and alto saxophonist Tom Harrison down the jazz path least trodden to destinations including Clifden, Portadown, Kinsale and Castlerock.

The trio is in perfect sync on the opening note of pianist Tadd Dameron’s 'On a Misty Night', which sets the tone for the evening. Harrison’s mellifluous flow of ideas is buoyed by walking bass and Lyttle’s impeccable time-keeping. A brief flirtation with double time quickens the collective pulse before the trio returns to the head.

Standards dominate a set nicely balanced between ballads such as 'Cherokee' and 'Old Folks' and bop flavoured swingers 'I’m Old Fashioned' and 'Things Ain’t What They Used to Be'. On the latter, Lyttle switches between brushes and sticks and engages in some playful back and forth with O’Loghlen.

In what can be a restrictive set up – particularly with music that is stylistically unwavering – Lyttle’s deft arrangements ensure that the musical dynamics are in constant flow.

Solos unfold with and without accompaniment, tempo fluctuates within songs and slower numbers follow upbeat fare. Harrison brings a subtle blues vein to the mix and lovely, fluttering codas, while the leader’s polyrhythmic invention is engrossing.

Lyttle explores all the nooks and crannies of his kit. A fairly constant hi-hat and bass pedal provide the basic rhythmic pulse, while all the other surfaces are employed to embellish these rhythms with a surprising array of colours and accents. The cymbals sing and cry, susurrus as a sea breeze one moment and as powerful as charging waves the next.

On trumpeter Miles Davis’ 'More', Lyttle uses one stick to alter the pitch of the drum skins and thus extract melodic variation, much in the vein of drummer Ari Hoenig. A finger slides across skin like a sigh escaping. On the original composition 'After the Flood', he races around the kit sans sticks, evoking a tropical vibe that O’Loghlen gravitates towards with a nicely elastic groove. Cow bell and shaker add Afro-Caribbean spice.

Lyttle can also pen a tune, and 'Childhood', 'City Life' and 'Laura Jane' stand up well beside the time-honoured standards for their pronounced melodic content. These are tunes you can hum. Coming in the latter throes of the set, the trio is well warmed up on these numbers and Harrison in particular plays with growing fluidity and assurance.

Pianist Thelonious Monk’s 12-bar blues 'Straight No Chaser' serves as pretext for some steaming solos – with Lyttle especially animated – and closes a highly enjoyable set on a high note.

Where once the brand of jazz that Lyttle, O’Loghlen and Harrison serve up was considered as avant-garde in New York, now it serves as fine accompaniment to a Sunday Brunch in Belfast. It says something about the effects of the passage of time and something, too, about Lyttle’s ability to take classic jazz and make it wonderfully palatable.

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