It’s no secret that the UK has become a net exporter of excellent jazz over the last decade or so, thanks in no small part to our country’s history of allowing the genre to incorporate myriad other musical styles, and fostered by ground-breaking labels such as Ninja Tune and Erased Tapes.
But with head-curling new releases such as Vula Viel’s ‘Do Not Be Afraid’ (fiddly tUnE-yArDs-esque jazz), Swindle’s star-studded ‘No More Normal’ (cinematic grime-jazz) and, in particular, the soon-to-be-Mercury-Award-winning ‘Trust In The Lifeforce Of Deep Mystery’ from The Comet Is Coming (Afrofuturist jazz transmitted from another galaxy), 2019 is shaping up to be a watershed year for a long-bubbling movement whose time truly has come.
In a scene bursting at the seams with exciting new talent, Ishmael Ensemble stand out for two main reasons. Firstly, they sound wholly and unabashedly Bristolian. Given much of new British Jazz’s London-centrism, this adds a certain freshness to their material, and one that they embrace wholeheartedly on ‘A State Of Flow’.
Not only does the quartet’s debut proudly channel their city’s eclectic musical history (particularly on two trip-hop inspired tracks with the angelically-voiced Holly Wellington of Holysseus Fly), it also serves as the culmination of their ‘Severn Songs’ series, plenty of material from which has made the album cut. This recent string of singles was intended to celebrate the spaces in and around their hometown, including Stoke Park’s Dower House (’Yellow House’) and the mouth of the Severn itself (‘The River’). By combining all these tracks in one release the Ishmael Ensemble succeed in creating a real sense of place, a well-sketched environment that serves both as backdrop and inspiration for these widescreen compositions.
The second reason the ensemble stand out from the crowd is its bandleader’s deep understanding of the electronic music they harness. Sure, in the UK jazz and electronic music have been bedfellows for so long they’ve started inviting third parties home to spice up their sex life; but it’s still notable when an individual comes along who understands the needs of both partners equally.
Pete Cunningham has been DJing under his Ishmael moniker for years, splicing more traditional jazz elements into house and techno. His resulting knack for understanding the framework within which dance music and jazz coalesce best underpins everything from the rainy, Burial-esque patter of ‘Full Circle’ to the compressed house throb of ‘Lapwing’. He is intuitively assisted in this blurring of worlds by longstanding collaborator Stephen Mullins, whose atmospheric guitar beds complements Cunningham’s auxiliary beats perfectly. This fusion of atypical jazz instrumentation helps elevate ‘A State of Flow’ to realms far beyond where a straightforward jazz outfit could take it.
The album’s main fault is a marginally ironic one considering its title: it doesn’t quite flow. This is unsurprising given that it is comprised of songs that the outfit have recorded and released separately over the past year or so. Inevitably, then, it lacks the neat conceptual sequencing of modern masterpieces such as Floating Points’ ‘Reflections – Mojave Desert’ or Kamasi Washington’s ‘Harmony Of Difference’.
Nevertheless, ‘A State of Flow’ puts both the Ishmael Ensemble and their hometown firmly at the centre of the rapidly expanding British jazz map. Right now it sits near the top of 2019’s jazz releases. However, if things continue in this fashion it might not even make the top ten by the end of the year, which is an exciting prospect to say the least.
Words: Josh Gray
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