Bristol’s very own Ishmael Ensemble is one of the most exciting collectives in recent years that mixes jazz with electronic music so wonderfully. The collective has become an integral part of the UK jazz scene, led by producer and saxophonist Pete Cunningham.
The group is about to release its forthcoming EP titled New Era – and is sharing with Sound of Life an exclusive first listen to new single “Reasons” with MC and lyricist Rider Shafique, ahead of the release.
Both acts have collaborated before in the 2022 single “Empty Hands”.
Released via Severn Sounds, “Reasons” will be the collective’s bass-heavy first comeback single after its much-celebrated UK tour and London Jazz Festival performance.
Take a listen to Shafique’s thought-provoking lyrics, splashed across Ishmael Ensemble’s brilliant approach of sax, harp and skippy rhythms, which ponders the “meaning of life”.
We got the opportunity to speak with Cunningham about "Reasons," the upcoming New Era EP, the evolution of their creative process and more.
Happy 2023, and hope 2022 was great for you all! What was the biggest musical highlight of the past year?
I think it would have to be playing the West Holts stage at Glastonbury. We had the opportunity to bring the whole gang of collaborators and really put on a show.
It felt like a real celebration of everything we’ve achieved so far.
To get started, tell us a little bit about the beginnings of Ishmael Ensemble – how did you all come together and what was the initial motivation to start the group?
The project started with me feeling a bit bored of making electronic music out of samples. I’d always played instruments in various bands over the years, so I started to record and sample myself and the people around me.
This naturally gave the music more of a live feel, so the next logical step was to form the band, which comprises old school friends and people I've met along the way from the Bristol scene.
What do you think gives Ishmael Ensemble its unique edge within the jazz scene?
I’ve always been quite keen to keep the electronic side of our sound front and center, especially in the way I produce the music.
It goes back to the sampling thing. A lot of the key elements in our tracks are loops or spliced together bits of recordings, often from live shows or random jams.
We’ve never claimed to be virtuosic jazz musicians, or anything like that. This is just the way I've always made music.
Tell us more about your new single, “Reasons”, created with Rider Shafique – what aspect of the song are you most excited for people to hear?
I think it’s new ground for us. I’ve always worked with more traditional singers in the past but always wanted to do something that leans more into the world of UK hip-hop.
Rappers like Roots Manuva, Lewis Parker and Jehst were the soundtrack to my teenage years, so it’s a bit of a dream come true to work with someone like Rider.
Is there something you want your listeners to take away from it?
Rider’s an incredible lyricist, I love the positive sentiments he manages to convey while still being realistic and humble.
I particularly love the line, “Hand upon my heart, I’ll finish what I start, this journey is a process that I’m proud of” – it makes me feel like this music thing is really worth something, especially when it all feels a bit futile.
This is not your first collaboration with Rider Shafique. How did this partnership come about?
We met through a mutual friend at Stroud Jazz Festival. I'd been a fan for a long time so was keen to get in the studio with him.
I started sending him ideas I’d been working on and we soon enough got to work.
How has your creative process with Rider changed or developed from the first time you created together?
Rider has a totally different process to anyone I've worked with before; we’d just sit with the instrumental running until he’d got something written – jump in the vocal booth and often in one take a verse would be finished.
I guess I've learnt that often, the recording and the voice itself is the most interesting thing as opposed to the affects you add, or more – something I’ve often spent way too much time on before.
Now that this first single of your forthcoming EP New Era is out, can you tell us anything about what people can expect from the EP?
The record leans much more into the bassy side of my music taste. I’ve always loved dub and reggae; and Rider’s voice sits in that space perfectly.
The title track also touches on the heavier tones we explored on the Visions Of Light album. Our guitarist Mullins gets his sludge on something that always goes off in the live show.
How would you describe Ishmael Ensemble’s sound to someone who hasn’t heard it before?
The million-dollar question! I see it as electronic music with jazz leanings, but I always feel genres are decided by the times you're in. For instance, if we were in the 90s, I’m sure we’d be called trip-hop, post-rock in the 80s, psychedelic rock in the 70s.
I try not to think too much about it, to be honest. As long as it’s honest and interesting, I’m happy.
Was finding that sound together as a group a difficult process?
We’ve never really tried to find a sound to be honest. It’s very much just the sum of its parts.
My production techniques paired with Jake’s synth work and Holly’s melodies. Mullins’ guitar and Rory’s drums provide the heavier side of our sound, while the other guest vocalists provide their unique sound.
Luckily, that combination seems to work so far!
What’s the most effortless and challenging thing about creating as a collective?
We’re all really good mates and comfortable enough with each other to voice any qualms we have, so touring and the social side of things has always felt very easy and natural.
I’d say one of the biggest things we’ve been challenged with is having so many guests involved.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be able to afford to bring everyone along to the show, but most of the time it’s just the five of us on the road – so the challenge is making a big record with all manner of vocalists and instruments still sound as ambitious and dynamic live.
It’s taken a while to get there, but I think we’re really happy with how the shows have been going in the last year, as have the audiences it seems.
You’re just coming off a successful UK tour – what was your favourite moment or performance?
It would have to be the big homecoming show at Bristol’s Trinity Centre in November. We played our longest set with 10 of us involved to a sold-out crowd at one of our all-time favourite venues.
What more could you ask for as a musician? It felt like a real triumph.
If you had to introduce Ishmael Ensemble with one song, what would it be and why?
It’s an old one but I feel like “Full Circle” really set the tone of what I wanted the project to be.
It’s the first collaboration with now lead singer, Holysseus Fly, and felt like a real turning point for me as a producer. All the sounds just clicked and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. I haven't looked back since.
What is Ishmael Ensemble most excited for in 2023?
Getting back on the road and finishing the next album!
All Images: Khali Ackford
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Writer | Kevin Yeoh
When he isn’t making sure Sound of Life stories are published in a timely manner, Kevin enjoys wandering aimlessly in Kuala Lumpur city, going down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovering new music.