As Miguel-Atwood Ferguson sat down with The Revivalist for an in-depth look into his career and his vision, it became clear that this composer, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader possesses a passion for creating music that is both genuine and impactful. He strives to bring a a certain level of energy and meaning to each and every project he associates himself with. Read below as we discuss his upbringing, his work with the Brainfeeder crew, the LA vs. NY scenes, as well as previewing his July 9th NYC show at Harlem Stage with the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble, produced by Revive da Live, which features Pharoahe Monch, Jose James, Zap Mama, Taylor McFerrin, DJ J. Period, and Vinia Mojica. The night will feature a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, covers of unreleased J Dilla tracks, new arrangements, original music and reinterpretations of classic jazz, hip-hop & R&B tunes.
Can you talk about how your upbringing affected your musical journey?
Well, my father is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and singer and has backed up people like Etta James; he is a real music-head. My mom is an educator. So I grew up in this household where there were a lot of different cultures present. My father is black, my mom is white and there are other cultures I’m mixed with as well. They raised me with this attitude of appreciation for these different cultures. Also, when I was an infant, my parents put on these repeat tapes in my room when I’d be alone in my crib. So they’d have these repeat tapes of like Beethoven and Bach and Chopin which became commonplace for me. That became the breeding ground for my connection to being a human.
Then I went to a Suzuki institute where my brother was playing piano when I was four and I saw these young kids playing violin. I told my mom that I wanted to play violin and so she was nice enough to involve me in lessons. I started on violin when I was four and took weekly lessons up until age 24. I studied with a lot of the world’s greatest teachers. When I was 10, I started to compose symphonic music, some of which got recorded and played. At age 12, I switched to viola and started listening to more Motown and Jimmy Hendrix.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Sits Down With The Qualities Of Light
By the time I got to high school my uncle had given me an Art Blakey record and a Duke Ellington record. I became obsessed with jazz. It just completely changed my whole entire life. That got me to join the jazz band in ninth grade where I started playing bass and just shedding on jazz. Meanwhile I was one of the top classical violists in LA and I was studying with the greatest viola teacher around being groomed to go this classical route, but I was just geeking out on this jazz stuff. It was around that time that I started getting deep into hip-hop music too. A Tribe Called Quest had become my favorite hip-hop group and I also really appreciated Tupac and Biggie. The classical music was very interesting and very challenging to me and was very edifying, but I was identifying less and less with the culture around it. I identified more with the jazz culture and the jazz musicians, really appreciating my time spent with great jazz musicians that I would connect with. I made up my mind to focus on music and I enrolled at USC to study classical viola with one of the greatest classical viola teachers of all time who has ties going back to Beethoven. He’s only four people removed from Beethoven. He put me on the path towards mastering the viola which is my dominant instrument.
But, there was still this disconnect between me and this culture of classical music in some way that was taking the fun out of it for me. That’s always been my thing, you know, just fun. I’m a very serious cat, but it’s all about fun and getting people high with a good vibration. It empowers them and gets them excited about their lives. When I graduated USC, I became an A-List studio violist in LA playing on albums for Ray Charles and people like that. I formed a string quartet that was playing mostly in the jazz idiom. Around that time I met Carlos Nino who is an amazing DJ and record producer and we started teaming up on quite a number of albums together. He was my bridge coming from first the classical world to the studio world and now to just the multi-dimensional artist world. He’s been a great friend and still is a great friend to this day. We’re working on our second duet album now. He’s been one that’s been a mentor breaking down the history of hip-hop to me. It’s been a culture shock. It’s a severely different culture in some ways.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño - “Fall In Love” (J Dilla Cover)
So similarly to how I was relating less and less to the culture surrounding classical music – and that’s not to knock on that culture, I personally just don’t relate to it – I started to feel the same way towards the culture of being an A-List studio musician in LA. It was great; I got to work with Ray Charles twice. I mean, that will forever be one of the highlights of my life, no doubt about it. I got to go to his personal studio and got to chill with him for an afternoon and record with him. That was a very enjoyable day, but increasingly there’s this whole weird vibe of political-ness around the recording studios. String players can be ruthless and a lot of them haven’t put in the time composing and working on their improvisational skills like I have so they’re quite bitter and they’re quite interested in vying for each other’s jobs. I have no interest in that. I’m always a supportive person. I want to see everyone triumph. So now I’ve been working on my own stuff increasingly, whether it’s one of the three or four ensembles I lead or being musical director to many people, and I’m constantly recording on people’s albums as a solo artist. I’ve found my voice and my niche. I make the majority of my living getting hired to write and record an orchestra of myself on people’s albums. So whether it’s Flying Lotus or will.i.am or Seu Jorge. People all around the world will just email me their tracks and then I’ll hire an engineer to come to my living room. I’ll record cello, violin, and viola, sometimes recording over a hundred tracks just for one song all by myself. It’ll take me like a day to make an arrangement, half a day to record it, and that’s pretty much my story.
Suite For Ma Dukes – Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and a 40 piece orchestra Live w/ Dwele- “Angel” (J Dilla Cover)
What did it take for you to develop your improvisation skills in a way that allows you to be comfortable working in many different genres?
I really like to have fun and I’m also somewhat of a rebellious spirit. I’ve always been rebellious. I was never like a horrible kid, but I almost got kicked out of every single school I went to including college. It was never mean spirited, but I’ve always been just really rebellious. I’ve always questioned everything and I’m interested in things of substance. I’ll get really bored if I’m just playing some whole notes. Obviously there are many things you can work on while you’re doing something like that, but it basically just comes down to wanting to have fun. John Coltrane might be my all-time favorite recording artist. Bach is another one. When I listen to them, I find it utterly inspirational. It makes me feel like if I seriously work on my artistry, I will have something to say. I also find it invigorating how difficult it is. I’ve always been inspired by challenges. It makes me grow and it also shows me how to live. If you’re a good improviser, chances are, if you’re not totally self-destructive, you know how to lead a good life.
How hard was it to transition from taking your music and putting it on a hip-hop track, to taking these hip-hop or R&B artists and bringing them onto your compositions?
That’s a really interesting question. I found it really easy to add to their records, but I found it really difficult asking them to join forces with me. I’ve run into quite a lot of diva-ness and people just acting really selfish. There have been some people that I’ve worked with, specifically in the hip-hop realm, that I’ve hired to come on-board to be a part of one of my recordings and performances and they’ve been angelic. But I’ve also had mostly experiences where people just have really bad attitudes. They just want to be catered to in a way that I feel is unreasonable and very selfish. I understand all of the work they’ve done to build up their artistry and career is significant and they’re incredibly talented, but I’ve always been interested in the whole, in the collective. Sometimes these great artists can get destructive in their own genius when they’re not seeing the bigger picture. It’s been really interesting.
I’ve been around the block enough times now that, while I’m only 31 and feel like a baby in certain ways, I’m not really surprised by anything at this point. I’ve been in the studio where people have guns and all that. Luckily I’ve never seen anyone shot, but really nothing surprises me at this point. That’s a really interesting question though.
Having orchestrated and been involved in projects with artists within the Brainfeeder community, can you talk about what is going on with them in LA?
There are a lot of things that are special about the Brainfeeder crew. Flying Lotus comes from an amazing tradition of not just artists, but also human beings. His auntie, Alice Coltrane, is one of the great spiritual leaders of the past hundred years. Of course she was married to John Coltrane and was also an amazing musician. So that influence alone is humongous. Their family is rooted in genuineness and spiritual exploration in a way that transcends religion and culture. They basically got to this place where they realized life is infinite and there’s no limit to what they can discover with their lives and through their art. That was embedded in Flying Lotus’ conception. So hip-hop might have been the point of entry musically speaking, but he’s definitely inhibiting this spirit of musical expression, and that transcends hip-hop.
So he started Brainfeeder and he gave people an opportunity to spread and release good music. It’s not about the money; they don’t have a lot of money invested in it. It’s not necessarily a poor label, but it’s more just about grassroots substance and spreading around things that are truly unique. It’s not people trying to fit in to an existing curriculum or genre, it’s people that are creating things that are new.
And then he has all of these amazing friends and artists around him that are not just musicians. They’re visual artists and cinematographers. So Brainfeeder is a pretty profound movement. It also has humor too, so it has a really profound balance of attributes. These artists are all really young with the average age around 25.
I haven’t spent much time in NY the last couple of years, so I’m not up on the scene all that much, but one thing that I will say is that when it comes to music there are more specialty musicians in New York. I’m sure that’s going to change in the coming years, but it seems right now that you have a lot of people that do a couple things extremely well. I almost feel that there is more creativity going on in Los Angeles right now though. The level of musicianship in New York might be higher in certain ways, but I think the one thing that Brainfeeder has that’s really special is the amount of creativity.
What was the process of setting up your show coming up on July 9th in NYC with Zap Mama, Pharoahe Monch, and Jose James?
Well I’ve only met Marie, the founder of Zap Mama, once. We had a jam session that we recorded and actually Pharoahe Monch was there too. We just connected. A lot of people were vying for her attention and I just gave her space. She saw my genuineness and we had a great time playing together. I’ve always admired her and regarded her as one of the greatest vocalists alive. I feel that she is a great example of someone who has a lot of integrity, that isn’t pretentious and is really able to be a great source of light. It’s going to be the first time we perform together. I’m really excited. She is super profound.
Pharoahe Monch I think is by far one of the greatest emcees of all-time. I think he’s incredibly intelligent and has quite a lot of skills and experience. I’ve only performed with him once, but it was amazing. I can’t really say enough good things about him.
Jose James I’ve never met actually. I’ve never performed with him, I’ve never recorded with or for him. But I think he is very impressive. He’s done stuff with McCoy Tyner who is one of my all-time favorite musicians and inspirations. I could easily see me and Jose James doing a bunch of things together. Funny enough, when I reached out to him about doing this concert, he was freaking out because he said he was about to just send me an email about doing some things here in LA together. We’re both on each other’s radar I guess. We’re going to do a beautiful tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and we’re really excited.
How do you put together the compositions for your performances?
There are different aspects that go into it including budget, and even more important than budget is personnel. I learn from everybody and I love to study, and someone that I learn from continually is Miles Davis. His whole thing was, in his band and in the things he directed, he wasn’t trying to tell people how to play. He wasn’t really trying to talk much at all. He was trying to assemble the right players and really expect people to be themselves.
I’ve had a lot of success with that and I’ve really felt the absence of that the few times that I wasn’t able to implement it enough. Knowing who is on your team and really knowing them in a profound way where you can put them in a position to shine and just be themselves is critical. So whatever concert I do, I might have some inclinations of what direction I want to go, but until I have everyone booked, I’m not really able to fully conceive it because I’m writing for the specific players. A lot of people in this band for New York I haven’t even met, but I’m very familiar with their music. They’re my heroes. Marcus Strickland, Keyon Harrold, those are some of the greatest musicians in the world. I know them enough through their music to where I already know their personalities and will be able to put them in a position where they can shine. And the same with the material too. I just like good music. Life is so amazing and diverse, and I want that to be a part of what I share with the audience.
Interview by Eric Sandler