Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Birthday Bash

Blue Whale


Better than…celebrating Craig Ferguson's birthday.

Violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is a really a nice guy – a “beautiful cat” as they might say in advance jazz speak. He radiates an openness and familiarity that few musicians possess and that helps when you want to get fifteen friends together to play some music at the Blue Whale for your birthday. Last Friday, before a sold out crowd, Atwood-Ferguson did just that in a confident display of bandleading chops and communal reverence.

Why is it that at birthday shows the honoree always seems to do the most work? Atwood-Ferguson, celebrating his 32nd, must have been a busy man leading up to this show. Not only did he arrange almost every chart, but just the rehearsals and the amount of phone calls involved in assembling this all-star group must have taken days. He's got an adventurous repertoire and knack for assembling supergroups.

After a lengthy delay that can be chalked up to revelry and the longest line for the bar I've ever seen at the Blue Whale, Atwood-Ferguson wordlessly took to the stage backed by a 12 piece band that included a handful of woodwinds, a guitar/piano/bass/drum rhythm section plus assorted percussionists. Ushered in by Carlos Nino's shimmering sleigh bells, the group embarked upon a fully-composed introduction entitled “Peace on Earth.” The vibes were set in motion.

The group picked up the tempo with a driving hi-hat from drummer Zach Harmon and Vardan Ovsepian's lower register piano. Flutist Katisse Buckingham, a featured soloist on nearly every song of the first set, offered a muscled flutter as Atwood-Ferguson conducted with all parts of his body. Ovsepian provided a dashing and deliberate solo before making way for guitarist Charles Altura's spacious one. Altura, who also shreds in Stanley Clarke's band, was a frequent mystery to the crowd with hushed whispers quietly expressing awe. He cut loose a barrage of notes to close his solo before Atwood-Ferguson and Buckingham drew out the ending in tight formation.

After a funky, Latin-ish start, the band broke into a driving swing on “Afro-Centric” that featured a tasteful solo from trombonist Garrett Smith over the pulsating horn section while Buckingham provided a precise solo over the churning rhythm section.

Starting with a pregnant Mia Doi Todd, a parade of vocalists followed. Atwood-Ferguson introduced Todd as “expecting in a matter of hours” and the elegant vocalist performed a gentle rendition of the old chestnut “Wild is the Wind.” Clarinetist Brian Walsh got a little taste of the spotlight floating over his fellow woodwinds.

Jimetta Rose Smith approached the mic next, confusing the hell out of the band as they frantically checked their setlist and charts. As the band rumbled over a mid-tempo backbeat, Atwood-Ferguson turned away briefly. When he looked back, Smith had sat down to make way for Coco O Malaika who was actually slated to perform the next song on the list. With a chuckle, Atwood-Ferguson launched into Flying Lotus' “Tea Leaf Dancers” interjecting dissonant harmonies over Harmon's pummeling bass drum while Malaika, swathed in golden beads, soared over the daring accompaniment.

Vocalist Jessica Jeza Vautor then took the stage for a dramatic re-working of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie En Rose.” With graceful poise and pronunciation, Vautor handled Ovsepian's beautiful arrangement with ease. His bouncing piano was propelled by the percussion section's poly-rhythmic handclapping and Buckingham's sputtering flute, transforming the cabaret classic into the here-and-now.

The set closed with Hermeto Pascoal's “De sábado prá Dominguinhos” featuring Vautor and Smith vocalizing over Ovsepian's oscillating vamp. The liveliest tune of the set revolved around a pulsating samba that Buckingham twisted and parried over.

Personal Bias: Atwood-Ferguson's arrangements on the orchestral homage to J. Dilla – Suite For Ma Dukes – heralded a one-of-a-kind arranging voice. We are lucky to have the man sharing his talents in so many diverse situations here in Los Angeles.

The crowd: A wide variety of ages, ethnicities and musical talents.Lip-locked lovebirds were squeezed in with legends like KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Even more satisfying for a jazz club was an even division between men and women.

Random Notebook Dump: Katisse Buckingham provided the sound for Ron Burgundy's pyrotechnic performance in Anchorman. I have immense respect for that gig because jazz flute has always been a small passion of mine.

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