Ishmael Ensemble: A State of Flow review | John Lewis's contemporary album of the month

Ishmael is a saxophonist, DJ, producer and bandleader, known to his friends as Pete Cunningham. Over the past few years, he’s conducted some madly varied DJ sets, created stately remixes of tracks by Detroit techno legend Carl Craig and performed a whole album’s worth of songs by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. He’s also brought his studio-bound inventions to life with the help of a band, the Ishmael Ensemble, making music that’s pitched somewhere between astral jazz, burbling electronica, trippy minimalism, psychedelic dub and 20 years of club culture.

Ishmael Ensemble: A State of Flow album artwork

Ishmael Ensemble: A State of Flow album artwork

A key influence on the band has been the musical heritage of Cunningham’s native Bristol, something very evident throughout this latest release. The double bass riff on the jerky drum’n’bass track Siren! recalls Roni Size’s Brown Paper Bag; the doomy bass on Lapwing owes much to Massive Attack and there are numerous nods to the twitchy industrial rhythms of Mark Stewart and the Pop Group. But A State of Flow’s appeal is to invoke varied source material without ever sounding like empty pastiche. The River sees trumpeter Yazz Ahmed playing Arabic-themed improvisations over a bed of aqueous synth arpeggios and postpunk beats. Yellow House has Yoshino Shigihara (from Bristol-based band Yama Warashi) singing in Japanese over a quiet riot of kotos, harps and drones. Most effective of all are tracks such as First Light and The Chapel, where the drums drop out, leaving just the warm burble of analogue synths and soft woodwind harmonies.

A State of Flow is released on 3 May

Also out this month

Pascal Gabriel is best known as the Belgian punk who became a backroom boy on the London pop scene, pioneering S’Express and Bomb the Bass before going on to write and produce shiny synth pop for Kylie, Goldfrapp and Ladyhawke. His latest project as Stubbleman, Mountains and Plains, sees him creating exquisite minimalist instrumental miniatures, largely played on a clunky upright piano, backed by the warm throb of analogue synthesisers.

East Londoner Alfa Mist is a pianist and composer who has been mixing hard bop with J Dilla, jungle and garage beats for a few years. His second album, Structuralism, often sounds like Steely Dan going 2-step, but the best moments drift into hypnotic minimalism, such as the opening track or the minimalist piano vibe of Mulago.

The new album by the Pakistani American film composer Qasim Naqvi, Teenages, is a masterclass in the almost forgotten art of playing synthesisers for their own sake, rather than using them as tools to be linked to a sequencer. Naqvi generates interest simply by exploring a voltage-controlled modular analogue synth, revelling in each arpeggiated splutter, each buzzsaw burp, and each slightly unstable wobble, like a virtuoso violinist trying out a Stradivarius.


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