Miguel Atwood-Ferguson translates the works of of hip-hop prodigy J Dilla into orchestral majesty | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson translates the works of of hip-hop prodigy J Dilla into orchestral majesty 

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click to enlarge Miguel Atwood-Ferguson

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson

Jati Lindsay

Shortly after the 2006 death of James Dewitt Yancey, best known as J Dilla, Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer, and producer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson began creating orchestral homages to the Detroit hip-hop producer and rapper. Though Yancey had spoken publicly about his health struggles, his passing at age 32 (due to complications from lupus and a rare blood disorder) left the musical world mourning the loss of a beloved artist and his unrealized potential. Atwood-Ferguson ranks Yancey as a genius on the level of Mozart and Beethoven, with a body of seminal work whose complex, unexpected rhythms have established him as an extraordinary producer and innovator. Yancey was born into a family with a strong musical tradition—his mother was a singer, his father and uncle were professional musicians, and his grandfather was a pianist in the silent film industry—and he received formal training in piano and cello from an early age. Accordingly, his music evinces a compositional complexity that lends itself well to orchestral settings. Adapting hip-hop pieces to classical instrumentation can raise the hackles of all kinds of purists, including those who believe that string sections belong to “high culture” and those who think the process irreparably alters the relationship between producers and their source materials (the famous hook from Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfa’s bossa nova “Saudade Vem Correndo,” which Yancey sampled in the Pharcyde’s “Runnin,” necessarily works differently when played live). However, the four tracks on Atwood-Ferguson’s 2009 EP Suite for Ma Dukes (a collaboration with Carlos Niño, named for Yancey’s mother) are more like musical dialogues between him and Yancey, and they’re full of surprising nuances and textures. Atwood-Ferguson’s career has been marked by bridge building between genres—he’s worked with avant-garde, classical, hip-hop, pop, electronica, and jazz ensembles. This concert promises to be a revelatory experience: to prepare his orchestral arrangements, Atwood-Ferguson meticulously analyzed Yancey’s pieces and re-created the melodies, harmonies, and bass lines from the samples in the original recordings—all without sacrificing the head-nodding grooves in J Dilla’s legendary beats. Atwood-Ferguson’s luscious classical reimaginings of these beloved songs, broadcast across Jay Pritzker Pavilion by its magnificent sound system, should wonderfully illuminate the breadth, depth, and complexity of James Dewitt Yancey’s work.   v

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