Jazz in the City \\ Bristol’s musicians challenge the ‘normal’ with an experimental edge

8th August 2019
The Jazz scene in Bristol – the city responsible for the birth of trip-hop – is inspired by its own achievements

Words: Emma Finamore

With a musical history rooted in sound system culture, the city that gave birth to trip-hop also boasts a vibrant Jazz and Jazz-ish scene that draws influence from the punk and psychedelic music of the city’s past, as well as electronic influences from its dance music culture. 

There’s a hometown pride in Bristol music that you don’t get everywhere, and that goes for its Jazz, too. Ishmael Ensemble, for example, channel an unashamedly Bristolian sound – paying homage to the city’s deep musical roots. Latest LP ‘A State Of Flow’ combines the trip-hop that’s inextricably linked to their hometown – think Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack. Saxophonist and bandleader Pete Cunningham’s grounding in deep house and techno is also spotted in his sets under his DJ moniker Ishmael. His knack for traversing the space where electronic music and Jazz coexist – as well as collabs with other young UK Jazz artists like trumpeter Yazz Ahmed – reflects the ethos of the whole genre-bending UK scene right now.

Snazzback are leading figures in Bristol’s Jazz, soul, hip-hop and funk scenes – an eight-piece threading their intricate arrangements together with a deft ability for improvisation. Citing Dilla as much as Portico Quartet in their influences, they bring a feather-light touch and elegance to their Afro-funk psych-Jazz. 

Front and centre of many Snazzback tracks is the crystalline vocal of singer China Bowls, also a solo artist in her own right – fusing neo soul, blues and hip-hop influences, having been mentored by Eva Lazarus (front woman for Bristol bass music band Dub Mafia) and saxophonist, composer and producer (and beat boxer) Mr Woodnote.

Acts all over Bristol are fusing interesting sounds together to create their own spin on Jazz. Waldo’s Gift combine elements of groove, Jazz, math and classical music to formulate their unique sound; Feelgood Experiment draw on Jazz, soul and R&B; Hippo are an electronic future Jazz trio employing electronics, bouncing rhythms and big riffs; Holysseus Fly (the singer with Ishmael Ensemble) draws on the spiritually-led Alice Coltrane and nu-Jazz legends like Thundercat; and Run Logan Run fuse their passion for improvisation and spiritual Jazz with heavier experimental music. 

Labels, collectives, venues and club nights are a vital part of nurturing these artists, bringing them together and supporting them in collaborating, recording, performing and selling their music; BLOOM, for example, is a collective of musicians and friends, describing itself as being “from an experimental corner of Bristol’s buzzing music scene”. The combined musical projects making it up are varied in genre yet consistently progressive, playful and enchanting. Acts like Spindle Ensemble – combining elements of classical composition, Jazz harmony and folk sensibilities, with influences from Ethiopia and the Far East – and Anglo-Japanese Yama Warashi – steeped in Japanese psychedelia and folklore – speak to the diversity and dynamism of this collective. 

Astral Tusk is a label (home to Snazzback and Waldo’s Gift among others), collective and jam night at places like The Gallimaufry (a big supporter of fresh music), which aims to galvanise the experimental Jazz scene, along with offering an insight into improvised contemporary Jazz. All-woman Saffron Records helps to develop artists like China Bowls (their very first signing) as well as promoting greater gender diversity in the Bristol music scene, while party promoters Worm Disco Club throw dances like ‘Afro – Boogie Special’ and curated the Wormhole stage at Glastonbury – the festival’s new UK Jazz stage. 

LeftBank Bar hosts acoustic, Latin, soul and Jazz, whilst Bounce jam at The Social incorporates (but isn’t strictly limited to) hip-hop, Jazz, funk, breakbeats and Latin, are vital hubs. Free Jazz night ‘Improv’s Greatest Hits’ is dedicated to the recent eclectic underground explosion in Bristol of improvised based music and Jazz  – erasing genre lines and challenging the ‘normal’. Exactly what the city’s Jazz acts are doing right now.

Discover the Bristol scene by kicking off with the tracks below.

\\ Snazzback – ‘Ellsdon In Hedge Pt 1’

A seductively breezy and (seemingly) effortless offering from last year’s ‘Hedge’ LP, this track is just irresistible. Fizzing percussion and woozy layers of trumpet and sax team up with a laid back hip-hop beat, while China Bowls’ joyously full-voiced and full-hearted vocals pitter-patter above the instrumentation.  Next, hit up the twinkling ‘Mr Frimp’ and the Latin-led percussion of ‘Park Ark’ to discover how Snazzback approach music with a collaborative spirit, creating groove-driven flows that are all their own.

\\ Hippo – Gromet 

Taken from last year’s debut EP, this is a masterclass in combining traditional improvisation techniques and instrumentation with electronic sounds and unusual rhythms. Warm ‘60s keys and are contrasted with a pressing beat, and urgent, buzzing, jittery synths (almost menacing) weaving in, out and around the instrumentation – locating the track in the electronic and the contemporary. The dense mix of sax, keys, synths and drums, builds to serious climaxes to match their serious musicianship. In many other hands this would spiral out of control, but improve is at the heart of what Hippo do – so they keep it just this side of madness.

\\ Ishmael Ensemble – ‘The River feat.9 Yazz Ahmed’

Part of the group’s ‘Severn Songs’ trilogy (the title in itself an ode to their city’s great river), this track seems to reimagine the familiar, local stretch of water as a sort of offshoot from the sacred Ganges in India. Twinkling Eastern-tinged percussion (we don’t perceive it as cheesy or offensive ‘Orientalism’), samples of chartering river wildlife and hypnotic, dreamy chord progressions build to an urgent, pulsing beat. This – and a clever use of synths – make the track as chill-out room ready as it is a tune for sitting on a riverbank at sundown. Delve further into the Ensemble with ‘Lapwing’  – a building crescendo of Jazz-infused house shuffle – and the icy almost-trip-hop of ‘First Light’. 

\\ China Bowls – ‘The Way’

The delicately sweet, honeyed nature of Bowls’ vocals on this track belies the message of loss and loneliness. The neo-soul vibe with Jazz instrumentation and laid back hip-hop influenced beat also gives it a positive air, almost a feeling of ease and effortlessness; but that belies the skill and complexity of fusing these different sounds into a cohesive whole. 

Also check out this year’s ‘Before I Knew You’ , her crystalline vocals intricately winding around the simple-yet-effective guitar arrangement ethereal, breathless harmonies. 

Special mention to Snazzback for helping with pointers

Words and music: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Enduring Legacy

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