- 28 Aug 20
Ahead of the premiere of his performance for Rave On, Van Morrison this weekend, David Lyttle reflects on life in lockdown, the state of jazz and more.
Co. Down may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of jazz – yet it was here that drummer, composer and producer David Lyttle launched a career as one of the most respected jazz musicians on these shores and beyond.
Having performed in over 30 countries, collaborated with the legends of the genre and earned a MOBO Award nomination, he's found himself having to adapt to a different schedule in the age of Covid-19.
"I'm basically semi-retired, like a lot of people now," he laughs. "Now I'm back in the area I grew up in – which isn't a terrible place to be holed up for a while. I've spent a lot of time in the States over the years, but here is still where I'll always come back to."
Like countless other musicians, the sudden impact of the global pandemic came as a shock to David.
"I was on tour when it started to kick off," he reflects. "I was just about to start a very busy period – playing Brussels on St. Patrick's Day, and Morocco the week after that. We were naively thinking, 'Maybe we'll cancel Brussels, but we can still go to Morocco!' And we definitely thought we'd be able to go to Poland in April! But then, everyday, there was more horrendous news.
"The first few weeks were very odd," he continues. "This has been my job, my passion, and my life for over 10 years. But I've come to terms with it. It's important to have hobbies, and find a routine. Unfortunately, a lot of musicians don't have that – they just live for music. That's why it's been a hard time for a lot of artistically-minded people."
While many found themselves mindlessly scrolling down Twitter and Instagram timelines during lockdown, David has increasingly found himself stepping away from social media.
"There’s nothing worse than being locked-down, and looking at other people’s social media," he posits. "It’s a very unhelpful thing. I mean, I was on social media when it started, however long ago that was! But I would also argue that I made significant headway in my career pre-social media. I connected with people all around the world, and developed a real appreciation for what I did – because I had to work so hard to get it. People act like the internet is the saviour, but I think it’s done more harm than good.
"I haven’t had a smartphone since last year," he continues. "That constant connectivity is bad for the mind. Sometimes there’s an acceptable reason for sharing what you’re doing online, but most of the time I think it’s about the ego, or people who are missing something in life. People are less in the moment, less observant and are lacking basic manners. If someone picks up the phone in my company to check something, unless I know it’s something important, I’ll tell them to go ahead and let me know when they’re finished. It can be uncomfortable, but they get the idea!"
Another downfall of the infinite reach of the Internet, David argues, is how it can discourage burgeoning young musicians.
"I work as a mentor at Jazzlife Alliance, which is about discovering and developing new talent," he explains. "And one of the saddest things I’m seeing is that so many of these incredibly talented young people don’t really consider a career in music. I think it's insane – because when I discovered I had a talent, it was the only thing I wanted to do. There was no question of that.
"One young person told me he had seen so much on the Internet, and so many changing trends, that he couldn't see a way to get noticed. The Internet makes you aware of everything that's out there – and unless you have an incredibly strong sense of determination you could be put off by that.
"When I was 18, I wasn’t aware of the jazz scenes around the world. I was only aware of New York – so I thought, ‘Okay, I better get good enough and go to New York – hang out with the best people and try to play with them'. If I had known the standard around the world, I might have thought, 'What’s the point of doing this?!'"
In the age of social media, David agrees that much of the mystique that followed legends like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane has been lost.
"More jazz musicians are adopting pop culture, and that never existed before," he says. "The only way the jazz icons would have been heard from, in the public eye, aside from their concerts, would be if they did an interview. And these people weren’t in the papers or the magazines all the time, so you didn’t know very much about them at all. We’re all humans – and knowing how boring your favourite artist's day-to-day life is can ruin the mystique."
Even so, David reckons that the standard of jazz across the world, not only in the genre's usual strongholds, is seriously high.
"In the past year I’ve been to the Far East, the Middle East, North Africa and around Europe," he notes. "I arrived in South East Asia at the start of the year, and the night before our first gig, we went into the local jazz club. We were blown away by the standard. These were just kids from Vietnam playing jazz music, and it was amazing! There are some exceptional young players in Ireland too, without a doubt."
That being said, he finds that the media is increasingly struggling in its coverage of jazz.
"There’s a lot of media attention on bands and jazz groups – when for decades it had always been about the instrumentalists," he argues. "The bands now tend to be young, with a crossover element – whether that’s Afrobeat, rock or hip-hop. I have time for that as well, but in my opinion its about mastering your instrument for a start – and mastering, if possible, the jazz idiom. That’s a lifelong thing.
"The trends will always change," David adds. "But I’m still working, and I haven’t been part of any of these trends. I did dabble in the jazz/hip-hop thing – but that was before it became trendy. There’s trends in all genres of music, and it's generally better to avoid them. If you happen to a part of it, then that’s great, but if you have to strive to be part of it, it is not a good idea."
David has spent recent years developing a ground-breaking solo project, Tapes & Drums.
"I first did it in China, as a way to connect with the Chinese audience," he says of the project. "I basically wrote what sounded like a fictional account of my first trip to China – a Westerner comes to China. It was about everything he experiences – culture shock, the food, and I go on a date with a girl from China. All sorts of weird things. I then had it read in Mandarin, and I improvised drums to it live, in front of a very big audience. The first concert I did, they loved it.
"Then I did it in the Irish language in Donegal. I got a local primary school to write poetry for it. I also did it in New York on the subject of gentrification – I captured the thoughts from mostly older people around New York, talking about how the city had changed, which was quite heavy. Not too much optimism in that one! I’ve been developing that, and I have a commission to do another one of those."
Over lockdown, he's also kept busy collaborating with actor Liam Neeson for Hot Press's 'Rave On, Van Morrison' online event – recording a cover of 'On Hyndford Street'.
"One of the most famous examples of reciting poetry with music in the modern era is William Shatner," he says. "He did a fantastic album with Ben Folds, Has Been. That's really good stuff, and it's a bit different from my approach – but it's still an experienced, trained actor, and you’re creating the music. My ideas came very quickly for it."
Watch David Lyttle feat. Liam Neeson performing 'On Hyndford Street' for 'Rave On, Van Morrison' this Sunday, August 30, at 7pm on the Hot Press YouTube channel.