Winter Fest 2014: Exclusive Interview with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Pt. II) - San Jose Jazz

Winter Fest 2014: Exclusive Interview with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Pt. II)

In part one of our conversation with Winter Fest 2014 headliner Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, the LA-based multi-instrumentalist and composer opened up about his early years as a musician and explained how growing up in a family of music nerds brought him up in an environment with very few, if any, musical boundaries. In part two, we dove into his reverence for producer J Dilla and frequent collaborator Austin Peralta, asked if it's been frustrating being everywhere, yet in turn hard to pin down and wondered if his Buddhist practice helps him better focus as a musician. You've noted that education is a key component to what you like to provide your students and audience. What is it that makes being an educator such a key component for what you do? Taking that point further, was there any key moment as a student that made you want to give back? I do come from a family of educators, so it probably has to be linked back to that. For me, it’s something that’s incredibly essential and something I’m incredibly passionate about. Regardless of anything in our life --  our wealth or lack of wealth or how happy or sad we are, -- it is my belief that we do have the capacity to keep growing and learning, and I think great things come out of that in a way that will benefit everyone. I’m just incredibly passionate about trying to empower people too. I’m very idealistic about this, but I am convinced that everyone does have innate genius. That doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily activating it and manifesting it at all times, or any point, but I can’t deny that I really do think it exists in all of us, indirectly and directly, with really everything I do.  I’m trying to activate that within myself, and definitely within others. It’s all just based upon fun, something I feel that the world actually need. The world needs us to be our best and to actually see our unique passions completely realized. The world desperately needs that. I’m trying to do that with myself, and definitely every time I teach [others]. I wanted to switch gears and talk about a particular project of your, your “Suite For Ma Dukes,” which is an orchestral piece you did that revisited the works of the late, great J Dilla. Why do you consider that piece in particular such a significant contribution for you, and why was it something you really wanted to pursue? It’s maybe three or four fold. I actually never met him, but while he was still alive, my best friend, the great producer and radio show host Carlos Niño, and I were making plans to actually do an album with him. We hadn’t even approached him yet, but Carlos was friends with Dilla. They had worked on one album together. I first became aware of Dilla when I was in high school. I was a Tribe Called Quest fan. I really liked Q-Tip’s rapping, but I still wasn’t aware of who actually did the production. I was still more of a classical nerd at the time, and had started making the transition from just being a classical nerd to somebody that was constantly listening to all music. I was already into Tribe Called Quest, and then Carlos – this was around 2004 or 2005 – started saying “You need to really check out J Dilla. His library is vast.” I started listening to J Dilla and became enthralled with the depth and the diversity and the overflowing passion that Dilla has. One thing that I find really unattractive in any genre is when the artist gets dogmatic and narrow-minded with their passion within that one genre. Each genre is so special, but it’s just one slice of the pie. That was what I was attracted to in Dilla right away. If you listen to his music, he was just constantly in the “lab” working on his stuff. He didn’t want to go to the Grammys when his work with Tribe Called Quest was nominated. He didn’t even want to go to the Grammys. He just wanted to stay home and work on music. His influences are vast.  I’m attracted to that in any artist, and J Dilla has that. Like I said, Carlos and I were making plans to approach Dilla and do an orchestral album with him where we would be the three main artists. I would basically be orchestrating J Dilla’s work, and Carlos would help put it together. Then he passed. We were so moved with Dilla’s life, his music and this project that we already had plans to do that we said “Let’s just do it ourselves and release it for free on his birthday as a way of celebrating his life.” There’s something really sincere and magical about where Carlos and I were coming from, because we weren’t trying to necessarily celebrate the past or fit into an existing genre. We were trying to celebrate Dilla and his music in a way that was fresh and new. I wanted to touch upon your debut. Right before I let you go last time, we talked about why you plan to release it on LA imprint Brainfeeder, but we didn’t get a chance to talk about the work itself. What can you really say about the album so far? First off, I have barely begun recording my debut album. Not because I don't desperately want to, but I’m just really trying to survive. I’m always month to month and I guess if I was more interested in making money or having a career, I could [record it faster], but I decided a long time ago to be the most sincere solo artist I can be. It’s been really difficult to even have any recording sessions, even with the IndieGogo campaign that I did that finished up last spring. I raised close to $10,000 but that wasn’t even enough to finish my string quartet album and/or make much headway on my solo album. One day in the studio, without paying for any of the musicians to pay – just the studio – is easily $1,000. You start adding some musicians into it, and them boom, [you add] a couple more thousand dollars. That’s just one day of recording. A lot can be done in one day, but the point is that that you can easily spend 10K in two days of recording. I did two days of recording so far with a host of amazing musicians, including my friend Austin Peralta, who passed away. I also have about an hour’s worth of duets that I recorded with Austin. The album’s going to most likely be a double-album. It’s going to be on the Brainfeeder label and it’s going to be all original. It’s going to be similar to the approach that a producer/composer named David Axelrod did back in the 60’s and 70’s. He would take one of his favorite rhythm section into the studio and have them jam on some of his compositions. Afterward, Axelrod would go back and pick his favorite sections. Essentially, I'm going to be doing the same thing. I really want it to be empowering, thought-provoking, and scintillating for people. That’s the plan, and I’m just trying to raise funds to be able to do it. I’ve written a lot of the music. It sounds really fresh and amazing, so I’m just trying to get into the studio as soon as possible. Interesting that you bring up the Austin Peralta point, because I really did want to touch upon that. I did not know that he actually was playing in on those sessions before he passed. With you having that direct connection and seeing how the scene was while he was alive, and what it’s like after his passing, what was it about his presence that made him such a revered figure, and what does his loss really mean for the LA scene?  The depth of his talent – his genius – is just amazing. It’s staggering. And then that combined with his spirit, which was incredibly beautiful, incredibly uplifting, very positive, very light. Sometimes when you get around a lot of geniuses, they’ll get heavy or self-absorbed or critical. Austin was very encouraging and very non-judgmental. I think it’s really the time spent that ultimately leads to breakthroughs for any of us in any field, really, and from an early age, Austin was more dedicated to his craft than other people to their craft. That alone yields amazingness. By the age of 16, Austin had already recorded two albums for Sony Japan with legendary jazz musicians. He was already completely a prodigy and recognized around the world. He just kept on developing his thing. He was classically trained and he was a lover of classical music. I performed classical music, jazz and fusion music with him. I played in his band; he played in my band(s). We had plans to have a duo project together – like I said, we actually recorded as a duo toward that, and it was absolutely magical. We both shared that love of classical and jazz. There’s just no one else out there that I think had that much selflessness, because honestly, a lot of people that have that much talent in their field tend to get really self-absorbed and start to have this overwhelming aspect to their ego [to the point that] it clouds the actual art. Austin was more about the music. He wasn’t as concerned with his image. He was trying to let the music speak for itself, and that’s more of a true jazz aesthetic. There’s a lot of really talented people around, ferociously talented people with amazing attitudes too, but there’s just no one I know of in the world – not just Los Angeles but the world – that young that had a talent that developed, with a spirit that beautiful. With experience in both the jazz and classical worlds, how do you feel those two sides to your musicianship inform your output? Ultimately, whether it’s ethnic background or profession, the totality of our past makes up our present and is helping to inform our future. I’m a big music nerd, so I’ve always loved all music. [When I was younger], I was just traversing the classical world. In high school, my dad played me a lot of jazz. Once I really heard Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Coltrane and Monk and Art Blakey, I just got bit. It touched me so deeply. I grew up being aware of that spirit mostly via classical music. Then I’d listen to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, and I’d be like “That just sounds so good.” That awakens my spirit, my life, in other ways too. For my particular taste, I guess jazz just really awakens that in me personally. My love for classical music grows every day still, but in terms of wanting to make a living, I personally don’t have that much fun hanging around a lot of classical cats. I’m a lot looser than a lot of them. It’s nothing against them. I’m sure if I was a more developed, mature human being, I could play more classical music professionally and not have any issues. I still play a lot of classical music, but I’m not playing with the LA Philharmonic or playing chamber music concerts regularly in the classical idiom. [Still], my love for that world of music grows. It’s all related and music, ultimately, is just music. Perhaps jazz and classical are the two fields that I’ve spent the most time with, but I hope to just study everything, and to have some ability and actual knowledge of really how to play any music in a way that is sincere. That’s what I’m trying to do: develop in a way that will allow me to go anywhere in the world and speak that language of love and infinite possibility via music. In some ways you’re everywhere – you're a composer, a conduct, and a session player among other things -- but it feels like at times you can be hard to pin down because you have this ability to do all these different things. At times, have you ever felt that ability and breatdh of opportunity has been a double-edged sword? You have over 300 credits on a number of records, but at the same time, you don’t have a solo album out under your name. Is it tough feeling like you’ve put in all this work, yet at times it seems like it’s still hard to find you? I think other people feel that about me at times. I just feel lucky. You mentioned that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around a lot people -- I completely agree, and being around a lot of people, I’ve seen a lot of different attitudes and a lot of different mindsets. Quite honestly, there are a lot of bitter musicians out there. I can totally get how people can make judgments easily when looking at someone else. I don’t think it’s wise to do that, but I don’t blame them. I can understand the allure to do that. I’m really struggling now in my life, but I don’t feel bitter. I feel really lucky, and I don’t see myself becoming bitter any time in the future, because I don’t blame any of my success, or lack of success, on other people. I’m just happy to be alive. I love myself. I love what I’m trying to do in the world. I’m one of the more dedicated people I’ve ever met, but I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. I still feel like a beginner in a lot of ways. I’m talking to one of the most influential managers [in the music industry] right now. He reached out to me and expressed interest. He’s from the older generation, and he’s actually one of the architects of the actual music industry itself. It’s such an honor that he’s reached out to me. What you expressed – that lack of really understanding what it is I do – he’s also expressed that, and that’s someone that’s well-versed in the music industry. I’m sure once I actually start releasing a lot of my own albums, people will understand more about what it is I’m doing. The double string quartet of cinematic improvising is almost done, and I’ve never heard or seen any other group doing something like this. I’m really excited about that, and then I’m just trying to do my first solo album. I’m releasing some other little things along the way just to whet people’s appetite and to have something out there, but it’s all going to pan out beautifully. The last thing I really wanted to touch upon was your spirituality and how it ties into your music. Let me first apologize because I know this gets more specific. You are a Buddhist, correct? Yeah. But a specific kind of Buddhism, right? Yeah, it’s Nichiren Buddhism, practiced by the SGI. Even within the Nichiren school, there’s a lot of different schools. I practice with the SGI, which stands for Soka Gokkai International. “Soka Gokkai” is a Japanese word that means “value creation.” How does your spirituality tie into how you approach music? Oh, word. I’m happy you asked. It’s probably the most influential thing in my life, so it’s really exciting for me to talk about it. I’ve been practicing Buddhism since 1998, and I started practicing at a time when my depression was at its worst. I come from a family that suffers from depression, and that’s what originally attracted me to my particular Buddhist practice -- I needed [something] I could practice on a daily basis that I enjoyed, that didn’t cost money and that would allow me to be consistent and my best. I think there’s an infinitude of ways out there for people to do that for them. That’s really what I encourage people to do: find what works for you, and just know that it doesn’t necessarily need to cost money. Perhaps it’s taking walks. Perhaps it’s just reading at a certain time.  Perhaps it’s exercise. Knowing and devoting time to doing what works for oneself I think is very underrated, and over the course of time, it just adds up. You really see a staggering difference. To further answer your question, before I started getting into this Buddhist practice, I was more selfish, and I was more dark on society and people. I didn’t think people were inherently as equal as I now really believe. That’s one of the most beautiful feelings for me personally in my life: knowing that we’re all in this together, and regardless of one’s education, looks or anything, everyone has something profound to offer. I’ve noticed that we all have a lot more to offer than we’re even aware of. Once I started practicing [Buddhism], I became really interested in how my art would function. That’s the huge, huge turning point right there for me in my life. If you look at a lot of artist’s lives, that particular point -- whether they’ve developed that or not -- is hugely transformative for their life. It’s amazing that more people don’t talk about this, but it’s a really big deal. The artists that are actually making art consciously --  to have their art function in some way in their lifetime and after it -- actually empower everyone that comes into contact with it. They’re not just doing art because they’re caught up with their own plight and their own process. That’s cool too, but this is another level, I believe, in all humility in terms of humanity and the depth of what one creates and where it’s coming from. Also, people can create much better art when they’re actually concerned with other people and the world around them. [Laughs] [These are] basic things I’m talking about, but you’d be amazed at how many great artists throughout time have not really understood this. They might be really talented in a lot of ways, profoundly talented, but the lack of their humanity is ultimately what kept them from continuing to break through more in their life, and often kept them from being happier. This has been one of the biggest driving forces for me: trying to always become a happier person. That’s really my prayer. Whether it’s through a conversation like this or when people hear my music, that time spent not only unlocks their deepest joy and potential, but also continues to do so with me too. That all came out of my Buddhist practice. I wasn’t raised with it. No one else in my family practices this. I have a really awesome, positive family in a lot of ways, but I wasn’t raised with a lot of those key mentalities. I feel really lucky, and it’s something that I’m excited to practice for the rest of my life. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson performs at 8pm and 10pm -- and will be featured in a free artist master class / talk back -- Saturday, March 1 as part of Winter Fest 2014. To find out more about Atwood-Ferguson, follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, or visit San Jose Jazz's education programming is sponsored in part by Southwest Airlines. SouthwestAirlines_small_124

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