Atwood-Ferguson’s Garden of Riches

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“I’m not rich financially, but rich in spirit,” says Miguel Atwood-Ferguson about the expense of making his new recording, Les Jardins Mystiques.

(Photo: Hannah Arista)

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, the noted arranger, conductor, composer and multi-instrumentalist, has been featured on more than 600 albums. Most memorable is 2010’s Mochilla Presents Timeless: Suite For Ma Dukes (Mochilla), on which he arranged sublime interpretations of music by the influential hip-hop producer J Dilla and conducted a 60-piece orchestra. Recorded live in February 2009 at the Los Angeles’ Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex, the concert showcased such esteemed artists as drummer Karriem Riggins, bassist Thundercat, keyboardist Amp Fiddler, singer Bilal and rappers Talib Kweli and Kevin “Posdnuos” Mercer.

Since then, 43-year-old, Los Angeles-based Atwood-Ferguson has worked with an array of artists, ranging from avant-electronica producer Flying Lotus, percussionist and producer Carlos Gabriel Niño and jazz pianist Jamael Dean to soul singer Mary J. Blige and Brazilian crooner Seu Jorge. But it wasn’t until last year that Atwood-Ferguson issued his proper debut, Les Jardins Mystiques, Vol. 1 (Brainfeeder).

The debut album is not just overdue, it’s colossal in nature. Similar in fashion to The Epic, the three-disc Brainfeeder debut from saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington, Les Jardins Mystiques showcases a rotating cast of approximately 60 musicians, playing 52 original compositions across three discs or four LPs.

“It was my chance to let people know really what I do,” Atwood-Ferguson explained about the sheer size of his leader debut. “This album is me trying to be authentic. I’m not expecting everybody to understand this album or even listen to 20% of it; it’s meant to be enjoyed either by one track at a time or listening to it throughout. But I gave myself the green light to do me.”

That assertion, however, should not be misconstrued as arrogance. Atwood-Ferguson wants listeners to enjoy Les Jardins Mystiques. He says that the compositions are imbued with “healing vibrations.” “I definitely care about people’s listening experience,” he says. “But this was also a cathartic thing for myself, and I let this album exist for my own sanity. As I was delving into it, the music kept telling me that it needed more room to do its thing.”

The album’s grandiloquence is matched by its supreme allure. Reconciling orchestral shades of Alice Coltrane, Gil Evans, Claude Debussy and Charles Stepney with the modern spiritual jazz-meets-21st century soul and hip-hop of the West Coast Get Down collective, many of the tunes on blossom like sprawling vines and moss across verdant landscapes. Often, melodies and rhythms intertwine in boundless configurations, even though Atwood-Ferguson plants cogent melodies inside them so that the kaleidoscopic compositions become both entrancing and memorable.

Although the album’s title is a French translation of “The Mystical Gardens” — many of the song titles such “Eudaimonia,” “Kupaianaha” and “Hypatia” reference Greek, Hawaiian, Egyptian and other cosmopolitan origins. Atwood-Ferguson says that the album title reflects his notion of seeing everyone and everything as a “work-in-progress garden.” He also sees this album as an act of global activism in promoting mutual peace and harmony by pouring “energy of empowerment into each song.”

“I love studying history. A lot of the song titles stem from me studying different cultures from the past,” he explains. “This album is me acknowledging the amazingness of the diversity of life. Once we start opening up this appreciation for things in a type of infrastructural space that allow inclusion of different people, places and things to coexist harmoniously, I think we will see links between all of us.”

One of the standout compositions is “Eudaimonia,” a gorgeous duet between Atwood-Ferguson on viola and the late pianist Austin Peralta. Sounding very much like a gentle John Coltrane tribute performed by violinist Michael White and John Hicks, the composition was one of the first to be recorded for the album. With its literal translation being “the state of condition of good spirit,” the song also comes across as a homage to Atwood-Ferguson’s friendship with Peralta, who died at the age of 22 in 2012. “Even though [Peralta] passed away 12 years ago, he’s still one of my best friends,” Atwood-Ferguson says. “My friendship with him still takes on meaning every day.”

Another standout is “Kairos,” of which Atwood-Ferguson provides two enchanting yet different treatments. With its wondrous, ever-blossoming melody and DOMi’s crisscrossing contrapuntal improvisational lines on piano, “Kairos (Kefi)” spirals against JD Beck’s skittering drum pattern, while its counterpart, “Kairos (Amor Fati)” takes on a heavier, orchestral stance with a slower, almost prowling pace, anchored by Thundercat’s rolling bass line.

The album also contains some intriguing whimsical pieces such as “Porpita,” on which Atwood-Ferguson experiments with orchestral backmasking and reversal violin and viola feeds sounds while simultaneously piano and bass melodic gems glimmer in forward motion. There’s also the sparkling “Narva,” which illuminates with bubbly synth textures that reminisce a vintage video game soundscape.

When speaking about some of the more playful moments on Les Jardins Mystiques, Atwood-Ferguson contends, “If there is a such a thing as genius, I think it’s related to a sense of play. I think having fun is very underrated. For sure, there are many things that we should be serious about. But I think if we have more fun, it would facilitate our ability to be more critical thinkers and more responsible people. When you have a sense of play, you have things like open-mindedness, being present, and asking questions.”

Les Jardins Mystiques was 14 years in the making. Brainfeeder owner Flying Lotus — who happens to be the grandnephew of Alice Coltrane — encouraged Atwood-Fergurson to record his own album when they collaborated on Flying Lotus’ 2010 album Cosmogramma. But it wasn’t until after the Suite For Ma Dukes concert that Atwood-Ferguson slowly began working and financially investing in making the album.

Atwood-Ferguson says that he invested his life savings of $120,000 to finance the making Les Jardins Mystiques. “Essentially, I’ve been living hand-to-mouth all of these years. I’m not rich financially, but rich in spirit.” DB



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