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Wax Werk by Ishmael Ensemble

23.4.21

Bristol-based jazz collective Ishmael Ensemble are set to release their new album Visions Of Light in August, and we decided to get a first taste of what’s to come by listening to their newly released single, ‘Wax Werk’. Band leader and saxophonist Pete Cunningham is the cornerstone of Ishmael Ensemble, but is by no means the full experience – the other players in this experimental jazz collective often rotate and shift, allowing for a diversity in sound and a perpetual dynamism to the group. Some members swap instruments, some swap places, and there are always new people featuring as part of the collective. Ishmael Ensemble are definitely a really exciting artist-collective to watch. After garnering high praise and acclaim on their 2019 release A State Of Flow, the ensemble’s new album is greatly anticipated. Featuring ‘stirring ambient invocations, club-ready percussive workouts, spiralling grooves & hazy psychedelic electronica’, A State of Flow was an exciting new jazz album which challenged and intrigued many. Now in 2021, Visions Of Light is set to further the ensemble’s project – to ‘reimagine what an ‘ensemble’ can do: expanding into a shifting collective, where human relationships between artists underpin far-ranging, stunningly ambitious and emotionally-heavyweight compositions.’ We can’t wait to hear it.

“The track strikes the perfect balance between repetition and renewal, and between experimentalism and a tight, clean feel – it’s really impressive.”

‘Wax Werk’ opens with distorted yet clean electronic sounds, creating a head-nodding groove which is both atmospheric and engaging. The piece’s title obviously nods to electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, yet Ishmael Ensemble’s electronic sound is very different and distinctive. The ensemble completely take advantage of the repetitive nature of electronic music, exploiting this repetition in order to create a slow and gradual build towards a musical and emotional peak. The slow addition of different harmonic and rhythmic layers to the track means that as a listener, we are never disengaged. The track strikes the perfect balance between repetition and renewal, and between experimentalism and a tight, clean feel – it’s really impressive. ​

As Cunningham enters on sax, the atmosphere begins to rise; the layers of smooth tonal sax soon move into a shredding solo. The track’s intensity reaches a peak as Cunningham shreds on sax, and Rory O’Gorman matches this perfectly through busy drum fills and lightening-fast grooves. The pair bounce off one another in an electric moment of improvisation – although some of Cunningham’s choices are very experimental, the effect is extremely stimulating rather than off-putting. Suddenly, everything drops out and just the sound of the sax can be heard. Cunningham has manipulated the saxophone electronically, so that it almost sounds like a voice is singing as the piece closes. ‘Wax Werk’ is truly atmospheric, and an extremely compelling listen.

“the music is some of the most accessible experimental jazz we’ve heard in a while”

If Ishmael Ensemble’s new single is anything to go off, Visions Of Light is going to be an incredible album. Describing themselves as ‘Experimental Jazzwise Electronica’, the collective may seem inaccessible from outside perceptions of the genre. But in fact, the music is some of the most accessible experimental jazz we’ve heard in a while; featuring atmospheric electronics, clear artistic intention and head-nodding grooves, ‘Wax Werk’ is an engaging listen for everyone and anyone. We can’t wait to hear the full album in August, and would recommend Ishmael Ensemble’s music to any jazz-lover.

​Review by Evie Hill

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