This new longplayer builds on Cunningham’s work as proud protector of Bristolian heritage, sketching loving sonic pictures of the South West in his Bristol-inspired ‘Severn Songs’ series, whilst also incubating local visual and musical talent, within the Ensemble.
These endeavours have won him acclaim and support, not only from venerated musicians and broadcasters including Caribou, Carl Craig, Gilles Peterson and Tom Ravenscroft, but also UK tastemaker press, and attuned jazz fans – who voted a UK Jazz Special at the BBC’s Maida Vale featuring the Ensemble ‘Session of the Year’, at the Worldwide Awards.
The new album broadens these horizons, showing more collaborators in the shape of vocalists Holysseus Fly and Yama Warashi, plus acclaimed horn player Yazz Ahmed. Further colouring outside the defined lines of jazz is also evident, yet is always anchored by the flow theme; the flow of water, of time, of cultural exchange and of roles within the Ensemble.
‘A State Of Flow’ touches on various styles of jazz, stirring ambient invocations, club-ready percussive workouts, spiralling grooves, hazy psychedelic electronica and Japanese lyrics.
Nodding to the city’s instantly-familiar hilltop location Dower House, ‘Yellow House’ explores geographic duality, with Japan-born, Bristol-based vocalist Yama Warashi singing native-language tales, of the magnetic and pastoral charm, of her adopted home.
The organic garage beats of ‘Full Circle’ and classic trip hop style ‘Waterfall’ fuel Fly’s honey tone and evocative lyrics. On the latter, she was inspired by the Bristol exhibition of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, which fits conceptually like a glove, exploring as it does themes of water and personal freedom.
The stirring invocation of songs like ‘The Chapel’ and ‘First Light’ — waking to life like a sunrise in nature and littered throughout with sonic miniatures and fragmented details — contrast with the heady intoxication of ‘Siren!’, or ‘The River’s arabesque leads.
No matter what inspiration the group gesture toward, the album maintains a uniform sense of clarity and poise. Throughout, expressive peals of saxophone, crisp drum flourishes and finely-textured electronic brushstrokes can be heard as recurrent main motifs, even as stylistic diversions mimic tributaries, arrowing out of the Severn.
Influences flow freely too, ranging from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Radiohead, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Roni Size/Reprazent, to the ambience of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
This would be a confusing melange, but for Cunningham’s excursions as a genre-agnostic DJ – something evident in the real house shuffle of ‘Lapwing’ – which evokes walking into a smoky afterhours haunt and finding a session in full, forward motion.
This album, borne of strong vision and stronger hometown pride, embellishes Ishmael Ensemble as one of the UK’s finest new groups. As shown across ‘A State of Flow’, the future of Bristol’s musical legacy is in more than capable hands.
“Contemporary album of the month” The Guardian
“Jazz album of the month” MOJO
”Every bit as energetic, adventurous & innovative as it is beautiful 8/10" FutureMusic
"It's challenging, and all the more satisfying for that 8/10" DJ Mag