Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, rara avis and musical polymath, brought a juggernaut 27-piece group to the beautiful water court of California Plaza this past Saturday night, and their performance blew me away. The Grand Performances show paid tribute to the late hip-hop producer-rapper J. Dilla (1974-2006) with gorgeous chamber orchestrations of Dilla’s music and also featured new compositions by Atwood-Ferguson. The evening’s program was based in part on a J. Dilla homage EP released in 2009 called Suite for Ma Dukes, produced by Atwood-Ferguson and his frequent collaborator Carlos Niño.
A classically-trained violinist and viola player, composer, arranger, and conductor, Atwood-Ferguson is equally at home with classical music, jazz, big band, pop, and hip hop. I recall that his last show at Grand Performances featured guest appearances from Thundercat, Bilal, Indian singer Shiela Govidarajan, and others. This past weekend’s program was sonically eclectic as well. The music I heard reminded me of Gil Evans arrangements and of Maurice Ravel‘s compositions because of the orchestral colors and textures. There was the big concert harp, a French horn, flute, saxophones, an oboe, and various percussion instruments. The group also featured a six violin string section. I want to give a shout out to the superb solos from flutist Katisse Buckingham, trumpeter Philip Dizack, trombonist Lemar Guillary, pianist Jamael Dean, and guitarist Paul Castelluzo. The large orchestra was propelled throughout by drummer George “Spanky” McCurdy.
The aggregation combined the power of a big band with the finesse of French impressionist music. Atwood-Ferguson’s classical training shone through in his own solos and as he conducted the orchestra with his bow. The music shimmered with the gossamer musical textures and instrumental colors we typically associate with the modern French classical music of Ravel and Debussy.
The vibe and setting completely differed from the formality of a classical recital, however, with casually dressed musicians on stage smiling and enjoying it all. The music flowed, powerful yet always poised and delicate, as performers and audience members celebrated the late beloved hip hop producer with two hours of musical ambrosia.