I have a real treat for you all! Recently, I had the privilege to get in contact with a musician who has crossed numerous boundaries in music. He has been involved in so many genres spanning, rock and roll, bluegrass and jazz. As a past member of Béla Fleck and The Flecktones, a current member of the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) and most impressively, leader of his one of a kind project, Jeff Coffin and The Mu’tet this man has made music history. Originally, I discovered this virtuoso sax man via his work with Béla Fleck, which then led me to become fascinated with his Mu’tet development. Once he joined DMB following the passing of the talented LeRoi Moore, broadening the horn section with Rashawn Ross, I had the pleasure to see his magic in action. Through chance, I was able to get in touch with Jeff and learn more about his unique journey in music.
Music has always been a passion of Mr. Coffin’s. I asked how it all began. “I think a serious lack of judgment on my part. Just kidding. I really love being in a band and the familiarity that comes with playing together a lot. I wanted to have a band that would be able to play basically anything we wanted to and rather than having a quartet or quintet, which to me sort of locks us into a certain genre, I chose the name Mu’tet, from the word mutation, so we can do whatever we want to do regardless of style or genre.”
His work has been hugely substantial and his dedication to his craft is viable in all. In that regard, he tried to select a few that he views as special in his book. “It’s so hard to say because I am invested so deeply on an emotional level on all the recordings. I think ‘Bloom’ is one of my favorites because I felt I was finding my musical and compositional voice on that one and started to expand outward in terms of sounds and structures and the like… I really enjoy the last two in particular, ‘Into The Air’ and the most recent ‘Side Up.’ I’m very happy and proud of the way the guys all played on these. I love collaborating with these guys and the last two CDs have been more collaborative that any of the others and I think the music is better for it.”
As for ideal performances, I asked if there were any that stood out in his mind. “Not really to be honest. I think the ideal is unreachable… It wouldn’t be an ideal if it wasn’t. There are a lot of folks I would like to play with though and I have a lot of music I want to record and lots of cool plans! If you mean in terms of festivals and venues then yes, I would love to bring this band (Mu’tet) to Europe and Japan and US jazz festivals and music festivals in general.”
Jeff had a lot of responsibility and gave huge tribute once he joined DMB. He declared that to be his most difficult moment in music. He shared with me his experience in detail. “Well, overall I would say the first night with Dave Matthews Band, July 2nd, 2008. I was called on July 1st from the Flecktones manager and he informed me LeRoi Moore had been seriously injured in an ATV wreck and couldn’t continue the tour and could I come sub for him until he healed. I had less than 24 hours and I was in NYC at a wedding and my horns were in Nashville and I was driving to Mass to see my 98-year-old grandmother and the gig was in Charlotte NC! Wow! So we had to do a lot of things to make it happen and then I had to figure out some of the parts to play before the gig. It was a whirlwind and I had to use every bit of my skill to make it happen… It ended up being basically seamless because everyone knows how to listen and react so well. It was like, hang on here we go!” He has defiantly mastered it and along with Rashawn has paid an honorable homage to LeRoi’s work. When both Jeff and Rashawn were introduced to DMB, I was more than satisfied with the choice and since then they have brought with them an impeccable horn section. I love their sound and what they bring to DMB’s world.
The music universe is quite varied these days. I was curious to hear about what Jeff thought about it all. “It’s funny, I think there is some really great stuff happening but some real dogshit too. I’m less in the loop than I have ever been and I’m not sure I want to be in the loop so much to be honest. I feel like there are things I want to do that I don’t need to know everything going on. I would like to know more though but it’s really a matter of making time to listen more. My time is at such a premium that there are certain things I will never hear unfortunately. I love listening to music and really want to listen deep when I do, not just one time through and on to the next thing.”
Beyond music, Jeff has some great ambitions. “… I think it will always be related to music on some level. Even my photography habit is related to music on a lot of levels. I want to compose more and teach more and arrange more. I also started the Nashville Jazz Composers Collective this year and I’m very excited about the prospects there. I want to engineer more as well. I want to help people put their projects out, that type of stuff. I would like to do more work with musicians from other cultures of music, from other regions of the world. I want to make beautiful spirit-filled music with great spirit-filled musicians. I would love to add more percussion in the mix as well with the Mu’tet. It’s hard to bring more musicians out but if I added something that would certainly be it.”
His inspiration flows from all artists. I asked if he could share a few. “Oh, so many! I just spoke with the great saxophonist Charles Lloyd today on the phone. We have him sitting in on a Dave Matthews Band gig in San Francisco on Sept 11th this year. I couldn’t be more excited about that! He’s been a big influence on me and I just love his playing. Books and authors and poets and thinkers and dancers and musicians and painters and sculptors… The things that people create inspire me and keep me searching. We are on a deep personal search and knowing we are out there with others searching is a comfort of sorts.”
Jeff remains to be one of those busy men in music. “Right now, [at the] end of August 2015, I’m out touring with Dave Matthews Band chilling out in Vancouver BC with a couple days off. The Mu’tet is on hiatus right now because my year is basically filled with this band and studio work and a new DMB [album] coming out in 2016. We are working hard and having a great time making music together. I am also starting to teach at Vanderbilt University this fall and I am working on a big band record, a saxophone book, a play-along book, CD and numerous other things in the studio with my record label Ear Up Records. I’m not sure what the rest of the band is doing currently but of course we stay in touch when we can. I know they are all doing great work!”
Finally, Mr. Coffin gave me a glimpse of his new big band record to come. “Well the next one is this big band CD I am recording with a group of students from Utah! They are the best high school band in the world, called the Crescent Super Band, and they really amazing players. We went to Cuba in March of 2015 and did some concerts, recorded for a day at Abdala Studios and did a cultural exchange with the National School for the Arts. We decided while we were there to finish the project back in the states and donate all the proceeds back to the National School for the Arts in the way of equipment for the students. We have some very special guests on the recording as well, Victor Wooten, Branford Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Rashawn Ross and others… It’s really turning out great and I’m very excited about it. Oh, and all the tunes are my original tunes arranged for big bands by various arrangers. Very cool stuff!” I agree and I cannot wait to see what comes out of these ambitious endeavors. Jeff is yet another music icon who is keeping the craft alive and well. Explore his Mu’tet work and be amazed, chances are you are familiar with his musical presence. Keep on rocking out to his magic and be inspired!