Tucked away in the heart of Koreatown lives Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. One of L.A.'s most revered instrumentalists, he picked up the violin at age 4, and 28 years later has collaborated with a diverse list of artists — including Kobe Bryant, of all people, with whom he played on his very first professional session, when Bryant had a rap recording contract with Sony/Columbia records. “I was 16 or 17,” Atwood-Ferguson says. “He's a relatively good rapper.” The project was never released, but Atwood-Ferguson has since composed and played for the likes of Ray Charles, Shakira, Barry Manilow and DMX.
Atwood-Ferguson earned a classical degree from USC, but soon after graduating branched into pop, jazz and hip-hop, building a name for himself as a session musician.
After receiving a track, he'd write arrangements for violins, violas and/or cellos, then record each in different parts of a studio, “to sound like an orchestra.” He's now a much-sought-after string player; The New York Times has called him “a leader of skilled ensembles, a celebrator of repertories, an organizer of legacies.”
He's connected and respected. But not rich. “I usually have enough money to live for three or four weeks,” he says. “I've turned down a lot of high-paying gigs because it didn't feel right.” A practicing Buddhist, his artistic decisions are based on the vibes he receives from music, and he now focuses only on projects he feels connected to, like his recent work on Flying Lotus and Thundercat's albums.
Atwood-Ferguson broke out with producer-mentor Carlos Niño on the acclaimed 2009 EP Suite for Ma Dukes, a reimagining of hip-hop producer J Dilla's songs with a 60-piece orchestra. Now he's crafting his debut album, to be released on Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label next year.
“There's a lot of room for classical to become more dynamic,” he says. “I don't think there's an openness currently.” Still, he doesn't feel too far removed: “I'm a traditionalist. But a true traditionalist will know the past, and it'll cause them to create fresh shit now.”
Atwood-Ferguson's show at the Mayan this weekend is a tribute to 1970s soul, put on by promoter Art Don't Sleep and part of a series in which he selects, arranges and directs entire setlists. These shows usually require something like 20 hours of work per day during the week of the show, “and I'm a person that likes to sleep.”
He will not, however, soon tire of his work. “Fun keeps it fresh.”
Atwood-Ferguson performs at the Mayan Theater on Sunday.