Live review: Ishmael Ensemble, The Cornish Bank, Falmouth, November 24th, 2021: soaring and warming on a chill evening by the water

Pete Cunningham of Ishmael Ensemble, complete with birthday hat

IF YOU’RE talking of about any kind of chronology of British Black musics down the decades, then it’s arguable really that there’s a triangle of cities which inform and inspire and spur each other on; those cities being London, Birmingham and Bristol.

And what a fine tradition that Avon city has in this regard: the much-missed DJ Derek, with a record collection the envy of pretty much everyone; Black Roots; The Wild Bunch, who gave birth to Massive Attack and the Tricky Kid, they in turn begetting triphop; drum and bass, with Roni Size, Krust, Flynn & Flora, Kosheen.

Now, with the current wave of British jazz really gaining accolades and with Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons of Kemet and The Comet is Coming a twin, London-based nexus of the scene, along with Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia, it’s nice to see Bristol’s very fine response in upping the jazz ante, Ishmael Ensemble.

Like The Comet Is Coming, Ishmael Ensemble push their jazz quartet (and, when joined by Holly Wellington, aka Holysseus Fly, on soaring vocal duties, quintet) aesthetic out in search of the cosmic; there’s nothing polite or earthbound about what they do.

There, is, of course, an incredibly Bristolian vibe, as they bring the dub, the bottom end boomin’ with five-string, low-B deliciousness; Rory O’Gorman is tight and limber and crisp in bringing the breaks, dropping out and re-entering the fray on the off-beat to catch you unawares; leader Pete Cunningham’s sax is by turns abrasive and spiritual in the Impulse Records fashion, so pure of tone; but the really unexpected dimension comes from guitarist Stephen Mullins, who comes roaring into the groove with space-rock and post-rock textures, as if – and let’s stay Bristolian here – Flying Saucer Attack’s David Pearce has spent lockdown wholly immersed in the catalogue of Blue Note, 1967-66, and decided here was a music ripe for howl and whoosh and immense clouds of trippy noise.

And that hat, that little undersized party hat as sported by Pete, as you’ll see in the photos? Well tonight marked his birthday, so it’s allowed; and yes, of course, Holly led the couple of hundred assembled on a remarkably chilly late on the south Cornish waterside in a satisfyingly balls-out rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

Last word perhaps goes to the ensemble’s merch guy, setting up his contactless while people swarmed the vinyl and t-shirts on offer, on this, the twelfth night of their tour in support of their recent, second, Visions Of Light album. “They’ve been on tour for weeks,” he said. “And they’re just so tight.”

Ishmael Ensemble’s Visions Of Light is out now digitally and on vinyl – you can get yours over at Bandcamp; their tour continues at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach tomorrow, November 26th, with dates in Leeds and Norwich on subsequent days. Tickets are available here.

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1 Comment

  1. […] as with Pete Cunningham of Ishmael Ensemble, who headlined the last gig I reviewed at this same venue, it’s incredible the spirituality […]

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