Album reviews

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – ‘Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1’

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1
(Brainfeeder. Album review by Ian Latham)

Album cover showing a kaleidoscope of colours and images

At a time when 20-30 new albums land on a jazz reviewer’s desk each week, it is not easy for a recording to stand out from the crowd. But Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s “Kairos (Kefi)” managed to catch my attention in Spotify’s curated “State of Jazz” playlist, long before I saw any press release. This track was one of nine packaged as “Selections from Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1”, that give us a sneak preview of the full 52-track, three-and-a-half-hour album. It is the first volume in a planned triptych which will comprise 10.5 hours of music. It boasts well known collaborators including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Jeff Parker, Carlos Niño, Bennie Maupin, and Marcus Gilmore

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is a Los Angeles based composer and multi-instrumentalist string player who has contributed to over 600 recordings to date. Miguel was recently seen conducting Floating Points at the Hollywood Bowl. He has also led a high quality live re-imagining of Charlie Parker with Strings for Summerstage in Central Park, New York City. These orchestral jazz projects provide a glimpse of his dedication and emerging pre-eminence as mastermind of a new-found harmony between the worlds of jazz and the symphony orchestra. This breakthrough marks a promising point of departure from the blighted history of crossover projects that failed because the artists had too shallow an understanding of both traditions. “Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1” continues to explore this confluence.

About half of the tracks on this album are quite short. Many are under two minutes. But some contain tremendous depth. Here are some noteworthy highlights of the longer tracks.

The opening track “Kiseki” immediately presents a stunning soundscape of rare beauty that reminds me of the peaceful chorus of a new dawn.

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I enjoyed the introspective and rhapsodic improvised piano and viola duet, with Austin Peralta, a piano prodigy who died prematurely, aged 22. Listening to this track, entitled “Eudaimonia”, I appreciated Peralta’s imagination, taste and sensitivity. He serves up lush, constantly changing jazz harmonies and textures that intertwine with Miguel’s more classically influenced viola melodies. Peralta’s improvised piano solo lines are lyrical and elegant. This duo is a satisfying pairing of complementary voices and acts as a welcome homage to Peralta’s rare gift.

Los Angeles’ The Blue Whale club plays host to “Ano Yo”, a filmed Live performance, which is closer to an archetypal jam session with head and improvised solos, from a two-sax jazz quintet expanded with two harps, electric violin and percussion. I felt the strings added a refreshingly beautiful, rich and varied timbral palette which was immediately pleasant to the ear. Improvised solos by Devin Daniels (alto sax) and Greg Spero (piano) are joyous, exciting, melodic and controlled. Gene Coye’s sensitive drum kit wizardry underpins the whole performance superbly. The skill and originality are reminiscent of the best of Snarky Puppy’s early work.   

Bringing more orchestral sounds to the palette, “Kairos (Amor Fati)” is a highly arranged piece with a flute-led melody that brings to my mind a slow-motion Hermeto Pascoal. It has a pleasant and gentle, relaxed groove with a satisfying chord progression and is decorated throughout with numerous orchestral colours such as harp glissandi, pizzicato strings, brassy riffs, piano runs and sweeping string sections. There is a stunning lyrical piano solo which is not obviously credited. 

In-vogue Gen-Z duo DOMi & JD Beck are featured on the lead single “Kairos (Kefi)”. It is intricately composed and features catchy melodic ideas. Stylistically, it spans jazz fusion, electronica, and the orchestra. The composition revolves around a repeated eight bar harmonic progression of major 9th chords which somehow manage to create in me the feeling of infinity, like Coltrane’s Giant Steps sequence or a Möbius-loop. Rhythmically, it is propelled by JD Beck’s modern, busy, computer-precise drumming and DOMi delivers a virtuosic solo on keys. 

This album gives us a tremendous insight into the extraordinary range of Atwood-Ferguson’s colossal talent. Everything on the album is remarkably high quality; the writing, the musicianship, the sound quality, and the collaborators. Styles and genres are  blended to the point where old distinctions evaporate. The dedication and effort in creating this vast body of work is clearly immense. I was left wondering what the backstory of each track might be. This is a record whose depth demands extended repeat listening, perhaps over years. 

However, I find the length and volume of this album to actually be a distraction from the high quality of the best tracks. To nitpick further, I question why there is so much computer programming on the album. A shorter album of live or studio recorded music with less obvious computer production might be more satisfying.

“Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1” is a real achievement and powerful statement of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s wide ranging talent. Certainly a musician to watch out for.

“Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1” is released on 10 November 2023

LINKS: Artist website

“Les Jardins Mystiques Vol.1” on Bandcamp

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