Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño make me want to believe in the spiritual nature vibrating just outside our corporeal reach. They speak of psychic connections and spiritual dialogues like I would breakfast or a new movie. They operate on a higher plane, their common language is often transferred, not spoken. In less faithful hands, the convictions disintegrate into cliches and banalities. But Ferguson and Niño practice what they preach. Their new collaborative LP, Chicago Waves, is an improvisational piece they first performed in the Windy City as a spontaneous opening performance for a Jeremy Cunningham show.
Over the course of the LP’s 44 minutes, the two L.A. staples move from quiet meditations to rolling contortions that mimic the title of the performance. The duo have been performing together for 15 years, but this is just the second time one of their performances was put to tape. They released the record in collaboration with International Anthem, the expertly curated Chicago jazz hub. While Ferguson has made a name as a go-to collaborator for Flying Lotus, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, and Thundercat, Niño is equally prolific in his work with L.A. luminaries like Jamire Williams, Deantoni Parks, and Kamasi Washington, and more. Together, their music is like a lightning strike, powerful, bright, and with enough subtlety that each moment carries a pound of feeling. Chicago Waves is a brilliant distillation of the duo’s shared mission, built on a history from a similar path but forged in individuality. — Will Schube
You’ve been collaborators for such a long time, why did now feel like a good time to get something on tape for the first time since ’07?
Carlos Niño: It wasn’t our idea; this is a collaboration with International Anthem. Miguel and I record all the time, and the idea of this particular record was initiated by the producer Scott McNiece, who was also the host of the concert that it was recorded at and the person who had it recorded. In general, I’d say Miguel and I are interested in recording and documenting what we do together and for each other, as much as possible. In our archive, there are several really beautiful, special, in-the-moment, duet performance recordings, studio recordings, etc. This specific recording, this particular record, was really the idea of the producer.
Miguel and I both listened to the music and listened to his idea for the release, and he was so passionate about wanting to put this particular performance out that was so meaningful to him, that we agreed. Miguel and I are always collaborating and always making music, and there was never an intention to not have something come out since the first “duet” record. This is the first thing that really has happened in that sense, even though we have a lot that’s always going, and a lot in our library.
How much discussion was there between you two before the improvisational performance happened? Was there stuff you guys wanted to hit on in particular, or how did that arrangement come about?
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Like Carlos was saying, we make a lot of music together, so it’s kind of like an ongoing conversation. We have been developing our duo for what feels like 15 years. Carlos, when was the first time we actually performed as a duo? Was it around 2008? Do you have any recollection?
Carlos Niño: It was on the radio at some point; I’d probably say around 2008. We’ve always played in a variety of ensembles together that either or both of us have led, and occasionally in other people’s groups, like in the case of us going to Chicago – we were both separately asked to be a part of Makaya McCraven’s group and Miguel had more specific things to actually do. In addition to performing, he was also writing arrangements for that group. Anyways, yeah, 2008 sounds about right.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: One performance that was after 2008 sticks out in my mind as being one of the first times we’ve played outside of the states as a duo. It was Berlin, it was like a half an hour/forty-five-minute set, probably not more than an hour. It was just me and Carlos, but Carlos had prepared some tracks that he produced for us to play along with. I like to refer to it as being “in dialogue with,” because true dialogue, how Carlos and I like to engage, is give-and-take. It’s really a vivacious, very real thing, where there’s actual openness inside of us, and there’s vulnerability and a type of responsibility where we are bringing actual energy and there’s actual energy exchanged.
The thing with these, you could call it a backing track, but I feel like that is a little bit dismissive to the magic that’s going on. Anyways, we started doing them many years ago and that’s what we did back in November 2018. It was the same thing, so there was significant prep on Carlos’s part. He’s very fast, he’s a multifaceted genius in my opinion, and he has these incredible things mapped out in his heart and brain, a lot how like how Mozart said that he had these pieces written out in his brain and he would just have to sit down and write them out. Carlos is the same way, in my opinion at least. He has these elaborate poems, he’s an amazing writer of poetry as well, he has these albums, he has these concepts very, very well-articulated in his heart and mind. He’s very fast, a lot like great producers like J Dilla, Flying Lotus is very fast too, where they’ve done so much internal work that it’s already sculpted in their consciousness, and it’s a matter of sitting down – not that fast is good or better, but there’s an amazing clarity.
Carlos put together these tracks that we were in dialogue with in concert – it’s fun to have no backing tracks as well, and there’s moments like that for sure, but it’s kind of like this subtle Holy Spirit, or us being in dialogue with the cosmos; it’s like having a friend present. That was it. We did talk some about those “backing tracks” and a flow, but since we’ve been doing this for so many years as a duo and we’re constantly talking on the phone and traveling around the world and it’s one ongoing dialogue, we know how we like to flow. We’re pretty much on the same page already going into it, so that was it – there was some prep, and we want to have enough openness so that it’s not scripted. We really want to be able to be vulnerable enough, to take enough of a risk so that we have an open canvas so that it can have a nice visceral energy for people there. If it’s too scripted, it’s not going to be enough of a risk. Especially with improvisational music, for people to really feel anything deep, a lot of the time it can be like that.
Carlos Niño: The phrase that Miguel just used, “ongoing dialogue” – Miguel and I are very close, so we’re just always vibing on things. We can do anything we ever do without saying a word, and we also use a lot of words; we communicate a lot. I think the answer to your question is yes, it wasn’t so specific to the prep of a concert or a set of music the way a lot of bands might have a setlist, but there’s a lot of connection and a lot of communication between us.
What’s it like being able to create this sort of work with someone you consider a dear friend for each of you? It must bring a certain new layer to the profundity of it, to be able to do this with someone you can call a dear friend.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: It’s vital; we choose to do it. Some people approach life as making a living, or something like that, and respect and love to all people and all their approaches, but Carlos and I have consciously, and again and again, we choose to take the approach to life of focusing on self-love, in a way we’re able to choose the things that we do so that they resonate with us on this level where after any conversation we have, we walk away happier, healthier, and with some newfound clarity and zest. It’s like saying, “We’re going to choose to do what’s resonating with us, on every level, to the greatest degree possible.”
And then, for instance, being able to make a living from doing that will come and it will manifest as it should. Some people think about, for instance, money first, and that’s fine, but Carlos and I tend to just do the things and work with the people that are really resonating with our hearts the most. We’ve been able to really make incredible careers approaching it that way. We really value our time, and I think we deeply care about trying to be of service or trying to be of worth or value in the world, not just in our lifetime, but after our lifetimes too.
It seems to me that Carlos and I, and people like us, are just trying to have the most quality moments as possible, and that good things will happen from those quality moments not just for us, but for the people around us. It’s vital, but it is a conscious decision – we are consciously choosing joy, and we’re not trying to fit into any preexisting norm, we’re just trying to be the best version of ourselves.
Carlos Niño: It’s my favorite. I don’t really play with and/or hire and/or make music with anybody that I wouldn’t consider a friend. It’s kind of essential to me. Miguel and I are so close we’re family really, and that’s my favorite thing – the idea that I’m spending time with people (and there aren’t that many) that I would want to connect with on any and all levels and create with them and be as connected as we are in a variety of ways. That’s amazing; I love it. I’m always open to meeting new people that I would want to get along with in that way, but it’s a rare thing to really connect deeply with somebody.
What’s it like for each of you to revisit this album, considering it was improvised in a particular moment a long time ago, and the world is, and I’m sure you guys are as well, in a far different place? What’s the prevailing feelings of going back and revisiting this album as it’s now coming out?
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: It’s exciting, and it makes me feel grateful that I’m lucky enough to have a friend half as amazing as Carlos. It makes me feel grounded and it makes me even more appreciative of him. It makes me want to release more duet albums with him, and I think there’s something about the great improvisation, whether it’s in any genre or medium (not just music), but I feel like in each moment there’s infinity. The deeper we surrender and give a hug to the infinity in each moment, we’re able to travel to every iteration of the multiverse. I feel like with the great improvisation, we’re able to have a bridge to everything and everyone, and it’s like traveling into our own infinite heart.
That particular concert, in my opinion, was really great. It was really fun, it was really sincere – if anything, it was sincere. I feel like we were in the moment, and by relaxing into each of these infinite moments, we’re able to travel anywhere that’s within our own hearts. Listening back, it’s fun, it makes me even more excited for the stuff I’m doing now, and I think it’s relevant also, because of all the turmoil that’s going on, I do think it’s going to have a nice, calming effect on people. Because Carlos and I are not overly impressed with ourselves, there’s a nice humility in that music, and there’s some type of trust or faith that’s transcendent of this time, and I think that can be a really nice thing for people.
When we’re going through something really difficult, just knowing that this is a moment in time, and it might be one of the most difficult moments in time, but it doesn’t have to remain like this all the time. When we can be in touch with the now, but also see so far into a more calming, or whatever reality we want to see, it’s really encouraging to a lot of people because sometimes all we can see is difficulty and strife when we’re in it. It’s been really amazing listening back.
Carlos Niño: Miguel said something that I would really like to point out: he said, “traveling into our own hearts,” which was really resonant for me. I also want to acknowledge, again, International Anthem because this is our first time collaborating with them, and it was really their idea. If somebody had approached us and had said, “Hey, do you and Miguel have any live recordings or studio recordings, or do you guys have an album?” we may have considered putting something together for someone. This is something to me where Scottie was really passionate about it, and I think we trust him and his taste enough and are friends with numerous people on the label that it really became, to me, a collaboration in that sense as well.
I do remember having a really nice time in Chicago during this concert. I was traveling alone and stayed in a really interesting place, it was snowing, it was cold so I’m wearing a jacket in all of the photos, and I really enjoyed the gathering as well. I enjoyed the audience, and I think that’s why that section at the very end of the record is worth having on there, which again was Scottie’s choice, something I was pleased with. Overall, I’d say anytime Miguel and I get to set up and play and not be rushed and not be stressed into a situation, which is rare because we don’t really agree to do things like that. I enjoyed the concert and being there and now it kind of has its own new life, which I’m attributing largely to Miguel and I, but also to the people that put it together that really wanted it to be released, and to have a vehicle for that with this momentum like, “Hey, we want to share this.” That’s an interesting point of view for me because I’m always initiating and creating the projects that I’m doing, and this was not like that. It is distinct to me in that way, and I’m sort of listening to it through that perspective like, “Scottie’s really into it. His partners are really into it. Wow, cool,” and it’s coming out in a few days. That process has been fun.