David Lyttle – MOBO nominated musician, producer, songwriter, label owner and jazz drummer from Northern Ireland – joined us in 2017 to spend five weeks in Suzhou as part of the British Council and PRS Foundation Musicians in Residence, China programme.
David began his musical life playing folk music and later developed a love of jazz in his teens. His work since has included collaborations with Jean Toussaint, Talib Kweli, Jason Robello and Soweto Kinch, among others. He also has a PhD in Musicology from Ulster University – where he studied recent developments in jazz drumming – so you could say he was well set to take up the challenge and opportunity of spending time in China getting to know a different culture and very different musical landscape.
We spoke to him to find out more about his experiences in east China and you can watch a quick summary of the talented drummer's residency in our three minute video below.
David Lyttle's China Residency in three minutes
David Lyttle talks China
How has your residency changed your perception of China and Chinese music?
David Lyttle: Within a couple of days I realised that 90% of what I thought I knew about China wasn't really that accurate. I did some research before I left so I didn't offend anyone by doing something culturally inappropriate but I was told not to worry too much about etiquette after my first meal. The Chinese are generally very laid back and also very forgiving. As for the music, I knew there would be a deep musical tradition in China, though there's the perception in the West that it's very simplistic. When I started experiencing Chinese music in person and began learning about it, I was very excited but I wasn't surprised by how complex it was. The musicians I was introduced to were very kind to me and very open to working with me and teaching me.
Before the residency, you were looking to find out more about the guzheng instrument. How did you get on?!
I was very fortunate to be introduced to Yu-Chen Wang early on. Not only is she a master of the guzheng but she also improvises, which is very rare. The traditional Chinese music I was exposed to is very much repertoire and heritage based, and just like classical music and many folk musics the masters are very often purists. It was very special to meet and work with Yu-Chen—she doesn't really speak English so our direct communication was purely through our instruments and our improvisations. We performed as a duo and it was very well received. We're going to explore and develop it, hopefully as an on-going project, in the near future.
You’ve collaborated with lots of different artists and hopped between genres over the years so what makes a great collaboration for you? What qualities does that other person need to have?
On my albums the collaborations are all instigated by me, with me usually writing the music first and then picking other artists to complete the track. When I collaborated with Talib Kweli I just knew I wanted him on the track. I admire him as a rapper and knew that whatever he delivered would work. I pick people I admire and trust; I usually offer them no direction at all and I've never been unhappy with the other person's input. That goes for my live projects too. When it comes to collaborations which are more balanced, as far as each person's input goes, I've been involved in some very good live and studio projects which have never made it to public ears. It's a very common thing and I think it's because if the result becomes too different from the participants' separate general artistic visions or aesthetics it can easily get abandoned. A successful collaboration has to have trust, vision and co-operation but sometimes one person leading a little more or having more investment can be important.
What’s next for David Lyttle?
I'm pleased to be returning to Suzhou in the last weekend of January to play Art Suzhou. It’s exciting to get back there so soon. Very soon after that I'm in Canada for a week and the rest of the first half of the year I’ll be mostly in the UK and Europe. I think I'll likely make my fifth album this year and I think it'll be my first acoustic jazz album since my debut album ten years ago.
Tapes From China
For a closer insight into David’s travels through China, look no further than his Tapes From China podcast, part of his Arts and Recreation series. The last episode begins with a track put together whilst in China, “Summer Always Passes”, fusing elements of Chinese music with a western drum groove.