Lance Ferguson talks spiritual jazz, Roy Ayers and recording the album ‘They Shall Inherit’ with his brand new Menagerie project.
There is no doubt that New Zealand-born, Melbourne-basedÂ producer and guitaristÂ Lance Ferguson keeps himself busy on the music front. Best known for fronting the hugely prolific band, The Bamboos,who for the past decade have made their own mark on the deep funk circuit, he’s also heavily involved in a number of side projects including being one-third of hard-hitting Hammond organ trioÂ Cookin’ on 3 Burners, and producing and remixing various electronic treats under hisÂ Lanu guise. Add in the fact that he also likes to work with the odd vocalist or two and you begin to think that there may not be much downtime in the man’s life. So maybe with everything else going on around him, he chose to make some time for himself on his latest project to pursue something a little more meditative, as this week sees the release in Europe of his highly anticipated Menagerie project on the Tru Thoughts record label.
Having previously flirted with the genre on the ‘Black Feeling’Â compilations on Freestyle Records, it seemed the time was indeed right to delve a little deeper and finally produce his firstÂ full-scale jazz project. “I feel like I have been threatening to do a jazz album for many years – it just took me a while to get around to it I guess. I started out playing jazz and studied improvisation at The Victorian College Of The Arts here in Melbourne after I left school. It was really one of the first musical styles I immersed myself in.”Â Ferguson explains over email. “The first jazz records I brought were actually more the way-out things such as John Coltrane’s late-period albums â€“ things like ‘Om’, ‘Expression’ and ‘Sunship’. Later as I got deep into the craft of jazz and bebop, I listened to the more ‘inside’ records. When I finally had the time and motivation to make this record I gravitated towards a more open-ended approach with it. There are so many jazz records out there these days with soloists trying to prove themselves as virtuosos that it becomes more like a kind of sport than music. I wanted to make this album as an ‘album’ rather than a spotlight on myself as an instrumentalist. I do take one solo though!”
From first listen, you soon come to understand that this isn’t just a simple collage of sounds lifted from days gone by; the actual musicianship on the album is top drawer, harking back to a time where technology was not the prime focus in the recording session. Ferguson has surrounded himself here with a group of extremely talented individuals and having assembled the band, they set about his task with some aplomb. Indeed when it came to picking the musicians for this project, it seems he was spoiled for choice.Â “There are so many bad-ass musicians in Melbourne that it was more a problem of who to choose from out of a number of great rhythm sections and soloists who could have worked great. Phil Noy on saxophones (from The Bamboos) really nailed the style and sound I was looking for. You can’t tell great improvisers HOW to play something because it will clip their wings creatively. Hopefully (as I found in Phil), you can give someone a basic concept (in this case Pharaoh Sanders/Coltrane) and let them run with it in their own way. Just like in hip hop, jazz is all about having your OWN style. I think the players on the record encapsulated the sound I was going for but definitely put their own stamp on things”. Noy, who also repairs saxophones by trade, actually went one step further than most in trying to nail the required styleÂ on this record by recreating John Coltrane’s saxophone right down to theÂ horn piece!Â Elsewhere, the ensemble includesÂ renowned Australian pianist and composerÂ Mark Fitzgibbon, Eamon McNellis (trumpet), Rory McDougall (drums)Â as well as vocal contributions fromÂ Fallon WilliamsÂ and Christin Deralas.Â
There’s also a high-profile feature on the album fromÂ one of America’s true jazz and funk pioneers, Roy Ayers. Mr Ayers leaves his own ubiquitous mark on the song ‘Leroy And The Lion’, vigorouslyÂ peppering the funky back beat with one of his unmistakable vibes performances, a fact that leads you to almost believe this could have originated from the same stash of unreleased Polydor recordings BBE released some years ago. Originally premiered by Wax PoeticsÂ back in October, it was this track that firstÂ hipped us to the project in question and Ferguson suggests it was pretty satisfying getting one of his musical greats involved. “I had recorded Roy a couple of years earlier on one of his previous trips to Melbourne. My engineer John Castle and I literally went up to his hotel room with some mics and a laptop and did the session. This material stayed on my hard drive all that time because I simply didn’t have the right musical vehicle to frame it in. I re-visited the stuff we recorded and we got the tune ‘Leroy & The Lion’ out of it.” Ferguson tells us. “Having Roy Ayers on the album is like a dream come true for me. I have been a major fan for many years â€“ his chord progressions and melodic sense being big influences especially on the first Lanu album I did for Tru Thoughts. I love him as a producer too. RAMP, Ubiquity, Ladies Of The 80’s and all the Uno Melodic stuff is GOLD”.
As we’ve already alluded to, theÂ spiritualÂ overtones are strong on this release. From the initial ‘They Shall Inherit’ mantra and melodic improvisation on the intro of the opening title track, right through to the soaring vocals on ‘There Will Come Soft Rain’ which closes the album, the music has a wonderfully evocative, drawn out quality to it. Â It is almost as if someone has immersed themselves inÂ the now much celebrated AmericanÂ independentÂ record catalogues of Strata EastÂ andÂ Tribe. We asked if that was something Ferguson has deliberately set out to do when the idea started to come together or did it develop as the band started work in the studio.Â “Labels like the ones you mention and also Black Jazz, India Navigation and Impulse (not an indy) were a big influence on this record. My record collecting over the last few years has really gravitated towards this area and this really shaped the conception of ‘They Shall Inherit’. In the early 70’s while most musicians got into fusion and the soul/jazz thing continued there was this whole other scene of players who continued down the trail that essentially Coltrane had blazed. They were really unfashionable at the time but so much amazing music came out of it. Thanks to re-issues a lot of it is accessible now but so much of this music is still obscure. I wanted to take this sound and aesthetic but give it twist so that it was about 2012. The obvious way to do this would be to incorporate some electronic elements or something out of beat culture – but the real challenge was to keep it traditionally acoustic and achieve the aim through just the compositions themselves.”
But we do have to emphasise that it is not all about revisiting those righteous compositions from more than half century ago, as illustrated by the inclusion of the trackÂ ‘Chosen’. With a slight nod in the direction of the sounds emanating from a little small corner of Ladbroke Grove in West London back in the early 00’s, when records tagged with the term ‘broken beat’ flew out of the offices of Goya Music in Kensal Road, and a portion of the capital’s dancers were quite literally dancing to ‘a different beat’, this track does belong in another age. Â Through his Lanu alias, Ferguson had already pitched an Antipodean outpost in the yard of the broken beat fraternity, so ten years on what made him revisit the music once again?Â “The broken beat boys, especially producers like Dego and Kaidi Tatham, were heavily influenced by Roy Ayers music. I wanted to draw this link between him (being on the record) and jazz (as I interpret it) and what happened in West London.” Ferguson explains.Â “The broken beat scene is a decade gone now but at the time for me it was an absolute revelation. Even though it didn’t really blow up beyond a certain small scene we can feel it’s impact today in the kinds of rhythms we are hearing in dance music across the board â€“ even in really commercial stuff.”
DOWNLOAD MENAGERIE ‘THE CHOSEN’ BELOW
So, with the album finished and a new chapter born in the Lance Ferguson discography, the question remains what are the plans for the band in the future. Obviously other things withstanding, taking the project out on the road would sound pretty amazing in our opinion – the live aspect could really heighten the feeling of some of the aforementioned vocal tracks, and, of course, there has to be further scope for more material to be written at some point. “I already have some ideas for what a new Menagerie album may sound like. The beautiful thing about acoustic jazz is that it is really quick to record. Once you have everything â€“ all the players and the music, in place, then you just hit record! It’s very different from the process ofÂ laboringÂ over stuff you put together from scratch in your computer or sampler.” On taking the band on the road, Ferguson is little more coy. “I dream about doing Menagerie live. I think it will (strike that… MUST) happen. I made this album for my children after all so I’m sure they’d like to hear the music played to them in-person.”
You should be able to pick up the album now through your usual retailer or via the Tru Thoughts websiteÂ where you can grab the CD, digital or 12″ LP (with bonus 7″!). For a modern take on a timeless genre, it is a near pitch perfect reproduction of the sound and should be picked up by anyone who has an interest in the music of Coltrane, Sanders, Roach, CowellÂ and Tolliver that came out in that most fruitful of periods.