What do John Williams, John Cale, Flying Lotus, Dr. Dre, Hubert Laws, Billy Higgins, Hall and Oates, Lana Del Rey, Barry Manilow and Ray Charles have in common? They’re just a few of the acts that have called upon the talent of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.
Multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer, producer, educator, Atwood-Ferguson’s job titles rival his credits, which include more than 300 recordings and innumerable live performances—both as a session musician and as a lead in the groups Quartetto Fantastico and the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble.
Not so widely known beyond his native Los Angeles, the artist that L.A. Weekly called one of that city’s “most revered instrumentalists” will headline this year’s San Jose Jazz Winter Jazz Fest. An album slated for release later this year will be his first recording solely under his own name.
When Atwood-Ferguson discusses his music, the word “diversity” resurfaces again and again. Perhaps this is no surprise, coming from a bi-racial artist who takes his inspiration from one of the most diverse cities on the planet. In many respects, however, this is a man who contains multitudes all on his own—a fact that is instantly confirmed when you listen to his compositions, which combine the narrative complexity of classical, the inventiveness of jazz and the seductive rhythms of classic soul.
Yet, for someone who courts diversity, Atwood-Ferguson’s bio is surprisingly monolithic: At the age of four, he picked up the violin and, basically, he never put it down again.
“I’ve always been a music nerd,” he says quite simply.
By age 10, Atwood-Ferguson was composing symphonies, which were performed for audiences before he left middle school. Then a degree in classical viola from USC put him on a path toward a career in a string quartet—until a growing obsession with jazz knocked him clean off it.
There was no repudiation of classical music, however, just an inexorable change in outlook. (This is a story about diversity, after all.) By graduation, Atwood-Ferguson realized, “I just wanted improvise, and write music, and travel the world playing many different styles of music.”
Like many talented musicians who want to earn a living, Atwood-Ferguson turned to session work. He speaks fondly of its eclecticism and, especially, of how much he learned during that time about all aspects of the craft and the business of making music.
“I was so geeked! I appreciated that I had work, but my heart was really in it too.”
Enter diversity again. When he tries to get at the root of his attraction to eclecticism—at his own prompting, not mine—he posits this: “It has to do with richness of spirit and invoking the infinite. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Atwood-Ferguson doesn’t shy from spiritual concepts. (He calls hearing a symphony from within the orchestra a “sacred experience.”) It’s clear that he leads from the heart and that diversity isn’t a slogan for him. It really is the encapsulation of the infinite variety—the endless miracle, if you will—of life itself.
I ask if music for him is tied to the search for a life worth living.
He instantly lights up. “That’s so encouraging that you said that!”
Then the conversation goes into an unexpected direction. “I’ve had a great life, but I’ve also had a difficult life.”
He talks about his lifelong battle with depression, about suicidal thoughts as a teen—and also about some hard-won wisdom he’s gained from the struggle.
“In the pursuit of—really, just trying to be alive, I came to realize the function of my art: I had zero desire of being a self-absorbed artist that didn’t care about the world that he’s living in. I wanted to be somebody whose art actually did something for other people.
“That’s the place I’m coming from: I want my music to be a healing thing, and an encouraging, empowering thing. But I don’t want that [message] to beat anyone over the head. It’s intensely real to me—but whether people know that’s my intention doesn’t matter that much to me.”
Listeners will have to answer for themselves whether there’s healing in the music. But in a representative piece, such as Drips/Take Notice, no one could miss Atwood-Ferguson’s cinematic sweep or the joy he takes in marshaling the many specialized worlds he spans to reach toward that transcendent place where everything converges.
“I’m only 33,” Atwood-Ferguson tells me before we hang up, “and for the remainder of my life, I’ll be developing all those worlds.”
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson performs with vocalist Mara Hruby on March 1. More info.