Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño: Chicago Waves review – a chameleonic voyage with jazz rigour

John Lewis
·2 min read

There are certain live albums where you’d love to have been in the audience when they were recorded, witnessing the magic. However, part of the joy of this particular session – recorded at Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center in November 2018 – is the sheer sonic confusion that you encounter while listening to it. What is this? A full orchestra? A small string ensemble? An Indo-jazz fusion band? A boffin triggering samples? It’s actually the work of just two multi-instrumentalists from Los Angeles: Miguel Atwood-Ferguson plays cascading arpeggios on a five-string electric violin that resemble the opening phrase from Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending; Carlos Niño makes highly textural percussive effects on a variety of drums and cymbals; while both trigger real-time effects and electronic drones.

The two have worked with dozens of other musicians – Atwood-Ferguson has written film music and arranged sessions for fellow Los Angelenos including Flying Lotus, Dr Dre and Thundercat over the years, while Niño is an extravagantly bearded DJ and multi-instrumentalist who has produced numerous spiritual jazz, ambient and electronic albums. This 44-minute performance is a largely improvised piece in eight linked sections – it’s minimalism with the harmonic complexity of a Romantic tone poem; it’s ambient music with the rigour of jazz. Atwood-Ferguson’s five-string violin conjures up Indian modes, English pastoralism and minimalist drones, starting high on the fingerboard and swooping down into the cello register. Niño’s percussion is equally extraordinary, a riot of bells, rattles, bird calls, gongs and rumbling timpani that take us on a panglobal sonic voyage. Every time you listen to it, different hidden joys emerge.

Also out this month

One of Carlos Niño’s frequent accomplices, composer Laraaji, is back with Sun Piano (All Saints Records, 17 July), an album recorded on a slightly clunky piano in a Brooklyn church. His signature style is slightly thumpy: the right foot seems to be permanently on the pedal, and he’s keen on those slurring “slip notes” typical of country music pianists such as Floyd Cramer. But Laraaji’s spacey modes and hypnotic blurs can be devastatingly effective.

The Hermes Experiment are an unorthodox quartet – harp, clarinet, double bass, and soprano singer Héloïse Werner. Their latest album Here We Are (Delphian Records, 24 July) features witty and imaginative readings of chamber works by contemporary British composers. Misha Mullov-Abbado completely transforms Schubert’s The Linden Tree into gorgeously abstract piece of medieval jazz, which manages to make an irregular time signature dance; Oliver Leith’s deliciously woozy Uh Huh, Yeah sounds like an operatic La Monte Young, while the two pieces by Emily Hall that bookend the LP are, respectively, joyous and heartbreaking.