Easily the drummer’s most high profile release to date Faces is the new album from David Lyttle.
On it he is joined by a big cast of players, singers, and rappers including guests Blue Note label saxophone legend Joe Lovano, hip-hop star Talib Kweli, cult vaudevillian Duke Special (aka Peter Wilson), and jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss. Faces also includes spots by rappers Homecut and iLLspokinN, Talib Kweli injecting some sunny energy on the Crescent City-inspired track ‘The Second Line.’ Partly a family affair too Lyttle’s vocalist sister Rhea and singer mother Anne also play prominent roles. “Sometimes the musicians, the people and the spirit of the place just align and it feels right,” Lyttle explains, setting the tone
How and when did you first start working with Duke Special?
In 2013 I was musician-in-residence at Beat Carnival, Belfast. Beat Carnival is a charity that promotes carnival arts. They wanted me to write and produce a song that would feature their samba percussion group and I came up with a dance track that also featured Rhea Lyttle, my sister. I wanted to have a spoken word segment on the track’s bridge and Duke Special seems like the perfect person. He agreed to do it and we got on well together. At the end of 2013 I was writing for Faces and I asked him if he would be into a co-write for the album. We wrote the basis of three songs and ‘Houdini’ stood out so we developed that one.
What is it that appeals to you about his sound – talk me through the recording of ‘Houdini.’
I think he’s very original and has a very recognisable sound, both vocally and song-wise. He sings with his own accent which I like, a very honest performer. Every word he sings is heartfelt and honest. On our second writing session we more or less finished the song — the lyrics are all Peter’s and he did some more work on those independently. I had a gig shortly after this at the Black Box in Belfast and we performed it there to get a feel for how it worked. I recorded the drums, backing keyboards, percussion and backing vocals (Anne, Rhea and me) and bass (Keith Duffy) to a demo vocal Peter did. I spent a good bit of time trying to get the right sound for the track. With something like this there’s not a specific sound but somehow I gravitated towards a sort of 70s tone. Once Peter had recorded the final vocals and piano we were finished.
‘I got into music because it touches me and keeps me feeling alive. So when I listen to my own music that feeling needs to be there. Otherwise, what’s the point?’
How did you hook up with Joe Lovano, and what did you take away from the experience of playing with him?
I interviewed Joe when I was doing my PhD. He’s worked with many of the great drummers and plays drums himself, so he seemed like a great person to talk to. We chatted on the phone for about an hour. It was a very nice evening for me. At that time I interviewed a lot of people and some were a bit cold; Joe was very open and warm. From the start I knew Faces was going to be quite diverse but jazz was always going to be a strong element of it. I had Joe in mind for a couple of tracks and it was really as simple as writing to him and explaining was the project was about. He was into it right away. This was a nice feeling because at the same time I was chasing a couple of well-known singers and not really knowing were I stood most of the time. When someone like Joe says they’re into your project it’s a big deal because they’re endorsing you as an artist and attaching their sound and name to the thing forever. The next step, sending the demo, often makes me nervous because I always worry that they’ll not like the direction and get put off being involved altogether. As it happened the first track I sent was ‘Lullaby For The Lost’ and Joe was into it. I flew out to New York in July and recorded him that evening at Avatar studios, Manhattan. The basic track had been recorded so I didn’t play with him in the studio but I ‘produced’ the session, as much as anyone would produce someone like Joe Lovano. He was easy to work with. No issues, tension, vibe or anything, which really is how it should be but sadly it’s not always the case. We talked about the track and he recorded a few solos and tried a few different directions. I created the intro to the track from one of his other solos. When I sent him the finished track with the rappers and the intro he really liked it. Again, I was nervous sending it but his response was so heartwarming and sincere. I love Joe.
Your concept of jazz on this album and on Interlude are very inclusive stylistically. Do you actively avoid trying to be too purist?
Actually, at this point, yes. I think I reached a point about five years ago where I realised I was only working in jazz but getting excited about lots of other types of music. It started to feel like I was limiting myself, kind of like being a serious car fan but making a commitment to driving only one make of car. Oddly now, having done Interlude and Faces, I’m getting the same excitement from jazz that I got when I was 18 and hearing it for the first time.
What inspires you most about the direction jazz is going here on the Irish scene and why?
I’m not as active on the Irish scene as I was in the past. There was a time when I was all around the island month to month with touring projects and collaborations. I’m not sure I’m really considered part of the scene any more. Specifically to jazz locally, more or less all my playing is in Derry up at John Leighton’s club Bennigans. It gets a mention in the Faces title track featuring Cleveland Watkiss, as you know. Bennigans has been special because I feel like we’re making music. And the audience feels it and tell you they feel it. The people are so warm and really make you feel good about what you’re doing. Derry is like that in general though. So although I’ve spent a lot of time in Belfast and Dublin I have to say that Bennigans is really my place of choice to play jazz. It’s hard to get a venue right and even harder to create a scene. I think it just happens. Sometimes the musicians, the people and the spirit of the place just align and it feels right. I played there with Jason Rebello, Terell Stafford and Cleveland Watkiss in the space of six months. Jamie Cullum came in to jam once. That’s pretty exceptional for a little pub in Derry.
As a composer and songwriter what element is vital in writing new material?
I start with chords most of the time. Generally the chord progression has to be very strong on its own for me to use it. After that the melody needs to be strong. When I say strong I mean it needs to reach a deeper place. I definitely don’t mean hip, in the jazz sense, or catchy, in the pop sense. I got into music because it touches me and keeps me feeling alive. So when I listen to my own music that feeling needs to be there. Otherwise, what’s the point?
David Lyttle photo, top: Adam Patterson