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Soul of a Composer: Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's Musical Thesis

Photo: Oliver Wang
Photo: Oliver Wang

Despite appearing on over 300 recordings, musician/composer/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson might still be one of the city's best-kept secrets. Since debuting as a teen prodigy on the viola in the 1990s, MAF has since become one of the southland's most sought-after studio players and musical directors, working in genres as diverse as classical, jazz and hip-hop. The number and diversity of his collaborators is staggering, including everyone from Ray Charles to Erykah Badu, Henry Mancini to Dr. Dre, Seu Jorge to Flying Lotus.

In 2009, he and Carlos Niño partnered to release Suite for Ma Dukes, an acclaimed EP of orchestral reimaginings of the music of late producer Jay Dee/J-Dilla. Yet, for all this, he still feels like he hasn't made his proper debut yet. This may change with the release early next year of his debut album, a yet-to-be-titled project released on Brainfeeder.

Artbound caught up with Atwood-Ferguson at his Koreatown apartment, where he's currently putting in long hours, working on a two-show series dedicated to soul music. The first installment, East Side Story, was produced in conjunction with ArtDontSleep and Mochilla, and paid tribute to the lowrider R&B classics of the 1960s and graced The Mayan in early October. Its sequel, finds Atwood-Ferguson once again collaborating with ArtDontSleep to craft That '70s Soul, and returns to The Mayan on December 16.

OW: Where did the idea for Eastside Story and That '70s Soul come from, and how did you get involved?

MAF: Eric Coleman of Mochilla, along with Marybell Chavez, and Andrew Lojero of ArtDontSleep approached me, saying, "this is our concept and we want you to be the music director, do everything, pick all the players, write all the music." So they gave me a playlist of maybe 80 songs and then I pared that down and suggested my own picks and spent about 20 hours a day for I guess a week and maybe 16 hours a day for another two or three weeks and just tried to do it with as much love as possible.

OW: For this next show in December, you're tackling '70s soul. How's that process going?

MAF: One song I'm considering right now is [James Brown's] "The Boss" [from the Black Caesar soundtrack.] We're considering doing it as an instrumental. I'm trying to have a vocalist do it but I'm thinking, who can do that? It would sound great if we played this instrumental but will it be as moving without the vocals? I don't think so. So, trying to wrap my heart around this and think what can we do.

OW: Seeing you perform, even while you're directing, you also have your viola close at hand. You started on violin all the way back at age 4 but you've also called the cello your favorite instrument. Compared to the brighter sound of the violin, the viola and cello both have a "thicker" sound, which seems appropriate for someone who works within and is conversant with hip-hop styles.

MAF: Yeah. I think you have a point. The cello has been my favorite instrument for at least 20 years now. To me it embodies the biggest spectrum of emotions and sounds. It can play very high in the range of a violin and it can play low in the range of a bass. The violin, which I love, has a tendency to be a little bit on the thinner side and bright. Now I'm starting to appreciate the brightness more, like my life has become more bright. But cello to me just kind of embodies everything and when it's played really well...the cello innately has this capacity to evoke this human singing quality.

OW: Besides working on these soul tribute shows, you are also readying your solo debut album for early 2013. Did it take this long for you to put out your own album because the opportunity didn't exist prior or that you didn't think you had reached the point where you felt ready to do it?

MAF: Probably a little of both. I felt good with my ability as a composer. I love my playing but I didn't feel like I was able to express what I was trying to express consistently as a performer. For the last couple of years it's really been more about trying to find the time and money needed.

OW: What can we expect from it?

MAF: You can expect incredible originality. You can expect diversity. Diversity of instruments. I had a hammer dulcimer on one track. Steel pan on at least one track. You're going to have a diversity of genres on there. It's not going be overtly classical or overtly jazz, it's going to be like this blending that I do naturally. I am expecting there to be some vocals but it's not going to be vocal heavy album so you're going to have a blending of a lot of different elements.

OW: There still seems to be a perceptual divide between classical and popular music. For musicians like you, who transcend those barriers, it's almost like you have to invent a language to explain what you do.

MAF: Yeah and I don't blame them. If I put myself in other people's positions, why would I expect them to know everything I've done? I don't have my own album yet. For a while I was actually thinking, "maybe I can record five albums and release them all at the same time because I know people are going to listen to what's going to be my first album and just think 'okay, that's what this guy does.'" I'm a bit concerned about that but then I realize that that's okay because I just need to keep on recording and just do it.

OW: It's interesting that you see this as your first album considering the many projects that you've been the musical director and arranger on. Creatively, isn't working as an arranger giving you some of the same opportunities to flex your ideas like a composer?

MAF: Yes but [with composing] I'm coming up with the thesis statement with the story I want to tell and when I'm arranging other people's albums they already have the structure there. The composition is already there. When I do my arranging, I kind of put my personal stamp on it. It's very unique but some people think it's not even arranged and [that] I'm composing but other than Suite for Ma Dukes I haven't even really started yet.

Photo: Oliver Wang
Photo: Oliver Wang

OW: You professional career got started back in the mid/late 1990s. At that point, what kind of directions were you pursuing as a musician?

MAF: I was already a jazz fanatic. In high school, my neighbor and close friend was this jazz player and we were best friends and...I started listening to Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and John Coltrane. I was getting a classical degree from USC and I was feeling less and less comfortable with the classical community. My appreciation for it was growing but I wasn't having any fun. I was starting to do studio work when I was in school so by the time I graduated I was interested in doing more. I was composing more and right before I graduated I was already starting my first group...a string quartet called Super Nova.

OW: And this is around the time that you met Carlos Niño, who's probably been your closest collaborator, right?

MAF: It was through one of my mentors, Nate Morgan. An amazing jazz pianist. He had already been working with Carlos Niño so Nate told me to play live on KPFK on Carlos's show, probably in 1997 or something. A couple of years go by...and he needed a string quartet on an album he was producing with Dwight Tribble and the Life Force Trio. He saw me as someone that can really fulfill what he was looking for in the body of musicians he wanted around him. He's really the bridge for me...as someone geeking out on music outside the classical world but didn't have any real foundation. He still mentors me in a beautiful way today.

OW: How did you and Carlos end up creating Suite for Ma Dukes?

MAF: Carlos and I had all these fun, idealistic talks and we made a list of people we wanted to do orchestral albums with. When [J-Dilla] was alive, we hadn't reached out to him yet and he was way at the top of the list. And so when he passed, we were so passionate about doing orchestral works celebrating Dilla and his soundscape...we were like, "okay, let's still do this." We didn't have any budget or anything but just recording one instrument at a time in Carlos's living room...we did "Nag Champa" and released it for free on Dilla's birthday the year after he died.

OW: I remember that. It made a big impression; I don't think a lot of people realized how well Dilla's productions could translate to an orchestral setting.

MAF: It really touched people's hearts. Questlove sent me an email saying it made him cry. Everyone knew that Dilla was really sort of a transcendent artist bigger than just the realm of hip hop and that he was a real artisan. That [single] gave birth to an EP that came the following year. It gave birth to [the Timeless] concert the following year after that.

OW: The thing that struck me with both the EP and the Tiemless show was how you really got that what made Jay Dee's music special wasn't just that he had great taste in samples or knew how to produce well; his best beats captured an emotion and a feeling that went beyond being "cool loops/chops." The songs you arranged weren't "instrumental versions of the beats" and they weren't covers of the sample songs. They touched on both but also breathed in new directions but most important, just nailed the feeling of Dilla's songs. I thought that was remarkable.

MAF: Well, thank you for your kind words. I appreciate that. I feel like there's a couple of main things that I had to do really well on that concert. I wanted to touch his mother's heart and make her feel really proud and happy too. I didn't want to make her sad. I wanted to celebrate Dilla. One he did consistently well is the rhythmic aspects and then just the harmonic and the melodic. He's conveying an emotion that really touches people's hearts and consciousness. So I was playing with these elements and also playing with what I was most passionate about because I think that's what makes Dilla influential in the first place. He was able to express his passion in a way that people could understand.

OW: Before I forget, I wanted to mention: I had a friend who used your version of "Fall in Love" for the processional music at his wedding a few years back. When it came on, I thought, "wow, this totally works. It's perfect for the moment."

MAF: Wow, what an honor. I'm sure Dilla is smiling too. A couple people have done it actually. I get emails and people saying that some of those pieces like that like "Nag Champa" reminds them of their grandmother. People will say that they use it to put their babies to sleep with that music and I think that's pretty cool.

Photo: Oliver Wang
Photo: Oliver Wang

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