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Ishmael Ensemble

Electronica and jazz collide in the UK's sunny southwest

2018 Oct 02     
2 Bit Thugs

Deep house producer turned electronic jazzer Pete Cunningham and his crew unveil a love letter to Bristol

All artists are influenced and inspired by their surroundings and environment to varying degrees. Yet few musicians and producers are quite as upfront about this as Ishmael Ensemble mastermind Pete Cunningham, a deep house producer turned jazz/electronica fusionist whose latest epic project is little less than a love letter to his home city of Bristol.

Moments after we meet at a venue in the city's arty, bohemian Stokes Croft district, Cunningham starts talking warmly about his first trips to the club 10 years ago, when he came to take in Pinch's now legendary dubstep night, Dubloaded.

"Along with nights spent at Lakota dancing to drum & bass, and to sound systems at Teachings In Dub at Trinity, Dubloaded was my initiation into a whole new generation of music in Bristol," Cunningham reminisces. "As 16-, 17-year-olds we'd head to Bristol from the village we grew up in, taking it in turns to drive and party. After that I moved here as quick as I could."

The inspiration the musician and producer took from these clubbing trips is explored on the second volume in the Ishmael Ensemble's ongoing Severn Songs series of 7-inch singles. The record's two tracks, First Light and Tunnels, both offer nods to these formative experiences. Although the latter is clearly rooted in jazz, its bustling live breakbeats, haunting saxophone lines and hypnotic electronic motifs perfectly encapsulate the late-night clubbing experience.

"I like to think of the music as a bit of a collage of my experience of music in Bristol and the musicians I've met," Cunningham says. "The project as a whole is a classic example of the attitude here. Even if people aren't collaborating directly, they're going into the same pubs, talking to each other and exploring ideas about music."

Although the Tom Ravenscroft- and Gilles Peterson-championed Ishmael Ensemble project differs musically from Cunningham's earlier dancefloor works, offering atmospheric and musically expansive works that draw influences from jazz, ambient and experimental electronica, the West Country producer says that his working methods remain very similar.

"The process is exactly the same, it's just that now I'm surrounded by amazing musicians who pitch in with ideas as part of the development of each track," he asserts. "The finished product is something that I have produced and put together, with all of these jigsaw pieces from different recording sessions with different musicians, like drummer Rory O'Gorman and guitarist Stephen Mullins."

Before these completed tracks can be performed live by the full Ishmael Ensemble band, Cunningham and his bandmates have to re-invent them using a similar artistic process.

"Although the records feature the same musicians, what you hear has been filtered through my lens," he says. "Before shows, we have to pull this apart and work out the best way to translate them live. For example, the live version of Tunnels has a whole new middle section, featuring mad drums and guitars, that isn't on the seven-inch version. We're trying to elevate the music to a whole new level in our live performances."

Words: Matt Anniss

Tunnels/First Light will be released by Severn Songs in October. For live dates, see the social links below.

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Tags: Ishmael Ensemble, Pete Cunningham, jazz, electronica, nu-jazz, Bristol, Gilles Peterson