This is the new South Western sound; music for the modern dance. It is brought to us by Ishmael Ensemble, the Bristol-based collective led by saxophonist and producer Pete Cunningham, who with their mesmerising blend of interstellar jazz and empyrean electronica are extending well into the future that noble lineage begun more than three decades ago by fellow Bristolian acts Massive Attack, Roni Size and Portishead.
Ishmael Ensemble have now taken their musical message out on the road and way beyond the Severn Estuary to promote their debut album, A State of Flow which was released to widespread critical acclaim just a fortnight ago. And they have brought their good buddies and fellow Bristolians Waldo’s Gift along for the ride.
Comprising Alun Elliott-Williams (guitar), Harry Stoneham (bass), and James Vine (drums), Waldo’s Gift do not write songs. They compose in the moment, creating tonight one single 40 minute often quite dizzying stretch of avant-musical expressionism. For all of its free-form improvisation – chiefly articulated through the alchemy of Elliot-Williams’ guitar and pedal board treatments, but which would be otherwise lost without the elasticity of bass and drums – the music is not bereft of either harmony or melody.
If we were trying to look for some sort of reference point then perhaps Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo could come to mind but that would be only in some fairly vague, abstract sense that Waldo Gift’s music could somehow be located in the wider idiom of jazz when it is actually an innovative sound that exists outside such frontiers.
Ishmael Ensemble can similarly be mentioned in the same breath as jazz, you suspect because of the existence of Pete Cunningham’s saxophone, but they too defy simple categorisation. They draw upon a wide range of influences, ones that do sometimes nod in the general direction of trip-hop and chill-out but which in this live context ultimately embrace a far more abrasive, neo-psychedelic cutting edge.
The scope of Ishmael Ensemble’s imagination is captured in a stunning opening that features both ‘The Chapel’ and ‘Full Circle’. Here the band – Cunningham, alongside regular collaborators Jake Spurgeon (keys & modular synth) and Stephen Mullins (guitar and, rather tellingly, a Sun Ra Arkestra T-shirt) and doing a double-shift tonight on drums, Waldo Gift’s James Vine – ease into a gently psychotropic groove underpinned by a mesmeric drum’n’bass rhythm.
On the ‘The River’ Cunningham fulfils his promise to “channel the vibe of Yazz Ahmed” who plays trumpet on the song’s studio version and in so doing subsumes the same Spanish folk inspirations of the recorded track. It blurs into ‘First Light’ and ‘Waterfall’ into what is the epic centrepiece of this performance and marks Ishmael Ensemble as true innovators.
The temporary loss of Holysseus Fly (Holly Wellington) to ongoing chemotherapy treatment is felt acutely by the band. She contributes her beautifully dreamy voice to both ‘Full Circle’ and ‘Waterfall’ on the debut album and the ensuing ‘Lapwing’ is dedicated to her in her absence.
Ishmael Ensemble may well leave The Crescent to prepare for next week’s appearance at Stroud Jazz Festival by stepping into their own past with the title track from their Songs for Knotty EP but the lasting impression from tonight’s show is that of a musical project whose gaze and métier is fixed firmly upon the future.
Photos: Simon Godley
More photos from this show can be found HERE