This is a story of two concerts.
The original “Suite for Ma Dukes” was performed on 22 February 2009 at The Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University. It featured a 60-piece orchestra, with guests Amp Fiddler, Bilal, Dwele, Illa J, Karriem Riggins, Posdnuos and Talib Kweli. The music, composed and arranged by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, payed tribute to the work of producer and beatmaker, James Yancey, also known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, who had died three years earlier. The Suite comprised of some of J Dilla’s best known instrumental tracks, themselves creatively sampling older tunes, which Atwood-Ferguson took as the inspiration for his compositions/arrangements for orchestra.
I don’t remember exactly how I first got to hear about the concert, but it was probably after hearing the initial EP release. When video clips first surfaced online I remember being blown away by the sheer intense drama and soaring beauty of tracks like “Antiquity”, “Hoc n Pucky” and “Untitled/Fantastic”. I sent links to a friend, another music head, who absolutely flipped too. We both grabbed import copies of the DVD and CD and played it to pretty much anyone we thought would appreciate it.
7 years later and the music still holds the same charge. It’s safely passed the test of time, seemingly undiminished by age or familiarity, to the extent that I think it’s safe to call it a Classic.
On 1 September 2016 at 10:57AM I received a promotional e-mail for the London Jazz Festival. OK I shouldn’t really be checking my phone at work, but I’m so glad I did. “Just Announced… Suite for Ma Dukes”? “London”? You have got to be kidding! Shaking, I rattled off a couple of quick, excitable messages to friends to spread the word.
That’s how I came to be at The Barbican, London, EC2Y on a wet Wednesday in November.
The show opened with Carlos Niño and Friends. Whilst Suite for Ma Dukes is a tribute to J Dilla, it’s Niño who introduced Atwood-Ferguson to his music and is instrumental in getting this concept off the ground, so this felt like an appropriate starting point. The onstage “Friends” were Dexter Story on drums and Josh Johnson on Alto sax and flute. Vocalist Dwight Trible features on one of the tracks. Carlos was surrounded by a bewildering array of percussion – cymbals, gongs, whistles, bells, shells, you name it. The trio’s sound was quite deep; improvised jazz with repetitive tones giving it a new age feel. At one stage Carlos started making animal and bird noises, inviting us to return his bird call with our own. Perhaps it was a bit too early in the evening to elicit anything other than a fairly muted response, which is what it got. The music was not about melody, but about mood, tone and imagery; so whilst it was good for calming the palpable excitement in the audience it did seem a little out of place.
The ensemble of 16 musicians was brought together specifically for this performance of the Suite for Ma Dukes. Aside from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Niño, the only other performer providing a connection with the 2009 concert was Dexter Story on percussion. The remainder of the group comprised primarily of UK musicians. Whilst the scale was smaller there was still room for 8 woodwind, drums, percussion, harp, keys, guitar, bass and violin.
We were treated to two sets during which the group played a mixture of titles from the original concert, albeit with new arrangements, and some new additions to the repertoire like “Much More”, “The Official” and “Look of Love”.
The night started out with “Stakes Is High”, one of De La Soul’s later hits, which samples a great Ahmad Jamal piano line. After that it all gets a bit hazy. I wish I could give you a detailed tracklist, but any sense of objectivity was swept away by euphoria within the first few minutes, as one great tune followed another. Just a few of the high points for me were “Find A Way”, “Untitled/Fantastic” and “Jealousy”. The latter with these insane little pauses in the chorus had the audience in pieces.
With a smaller group the dynamic was different, maybe there wasn’t quite as much variety in colour and tone, but I don’t think it really mattered one iota. Into the first set, Miguel mentioned that he had only met most of the UK musicians two days beforehand. It was hard to comprehend that this group of strangers had been able to craft such an exquisite performance with so little time together. Most were given moments in the spotlight, with particular mention to Gareth Lochrane who lit up the night with his dazzling solos on flutes and piccolo.
I’ve mentioned the audience response a couple of times and I think it is worth recognising how much they helped make the night truly memorable. Whether there were specific reasons for being there – fans of hip-hop, devotees of the original concert – or just simply to get out of the rain, the music was passionately received throughout with the kind of loud, spontaneous and ecstatic reaction I’ve not seen at the Barbican before.
Before I get too carried away, there was one disappointing element, that being the encore. A small band of musicians and singers – Gaby Hernandez, Nia Andrews, Dwight Trible, Daymé Arocena, Moses Sumney, Larry Brown, Jazzy Jeff and Eric Lau – were invited on to the stage to sing Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” as the finale. It all fell a bit flat as the singers lacked direction and it just seemed a bit odd to see Jazzy Jeff and Eric Lau stood on stage not really doing much. Whilst the performance ended with a bit more of a whimper than a bang, I’ll forgive them one dud moment.
In between first hearing about the gig and taking my seat last night there were a couple of times when I wondered whether I would be disappointed, simply because I had created unrealistically high expectations. Looking back I realise that I needn’t have worried. In fact the reasons I like both concerts are different. Suite for Ma Dukes 2009 was all about me looking in from the outside, listening and watching through recorded media. The connection with the music was and is an intensely personal one. In 2016 not only did Miguel Atwood-Ferguson manage to successfully reinvent this project, but I was lucky enough to be part of the audience that shared this experience. To be entirely selfish I hope that he does not revisit Suite for Ma Dukes soon, so that I can hold on to the sense of having witnessed a unique event.