Staying Connected With Jeff Coffin
Saxophonist Jeff Coffin is a busy man. Playing with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, one of the hardest-working bands around, would be a full-time job for most people. However, Coffin also has his own instrumental jazz band, the Mu’tet, who just released an album called Go-Round. However, many of you may know him as “that guy with Bela Fleck who plays two saxophones at once.”
Of course, he is much more than that. Like so many people in the jam band community, Jeff has a true love of music that goes beyond all labels and categories. When I caught up with him at home in Nashville, he was getting ready to meet a bass player and drummer that he had never played with before and “just jam and see what happens.” By the time you read this article, the results may appear at jeffcoffin.com.
Rob Johnson: Any reasonably talented jazz saxophone player is going to have to answer questions about John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. I’ll get to that in a minute. When I was looking through some other interviews you’ve done, I was genuinely stunned that nobody asked you about Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Besides popularizing the two-horns-at-once technique, his eclectic vision fits in well with your music. Has he influenced you?
Jeff Coffin: Yeah, very much so. He was certainly the catalyst for doing the 2 on 1 stuff. I have a lot of video of Rahsaan, and a lot of his recordings. I have one called The One Man Twins, live in Montreaux, that is just mesmerizing. I have another interesting recording that is from one of his radio shows.
RJ: He had a radio show? Where?
JC: He used to do a radio show sometime, it was kind of a roving thing. The one I have, he must be near a train station, because there are a lot of train sounds. One of the things I get from him is that he was just into different sounds, of all kinds.
He was willing to experiment with anything. The Charles Mingus album Oh Yeah, from the early 60’s, was the first time I heard him. He was doing a lot of the double horn stuff, and sirens and whistles, just crazy stuff. There were sections that I rewound and listened to 30 times. It was almost catastrophic! (laughs)
RJ: It’s funny you say that, because in this month I also have an article about Hendrix, and I talk about how I listened to Are You Experienced? about 10 times in a row when I first heard it.
JC: I had a similar experience with Hendrix once. I got this video of him and a paper and some lunch, and I was going to read the paper and eat my lunch while I watched it. I was just so mesmerized watching him, I didn’t read my paper or eat my lunch!
Rahsaan is the same way, he was like a volcano of creativity, just gushing. One of the things I got from him is creative license. Sometimes you think “is it really all right to do this?” Of course it is! Sometimes you have to break the rules. It should be encouraged!
RJ: You have been a part of the Zambiland Orchestra in the past. Are you going this year?
JC: Yes, and ARU is rejoining for that.
RJ: Really? I am so glad to hear that from you! They are one of my favorites!
JC: Yeah, they’re amazing. I’ll never forget the first time I heard them. I was living in Nashville at the time with this friend of mine, and we heard something off the first album, a live cut, on the radio and said “Holy Shit! What is THAT?” I went to see them shortly after that, and I think I’m very lucky to have seen them in their prime. I had to leave the show early, but the last thing I saw was Colonel and Sipe playing a cardboard tube! I remember thinking “Man, these cats are on another level!”
RJ: What was it like to play with Zambiland in the past?
JC: It’s like a maelstrom, there is a cacophony of sound going on, it’s almost a purely intuitive gig. There are no charts, just drawings that Ricky (Keller) and (Jeff) Sipe put together. They look like John Madden diagrams or something! I’ve been fortunate to work with Sipe a number of times. It’s really about the joy of creating something out of nothing, and to me, that’s the beauty of music. You never know who you’re going to be up there with, or what’s going to happen. The people who are involved with it have such a good attitude about it and a good spirit, that’s what makes it so special. That spirit.
RJ: In your opinion, what is it about Col. Bruce that makes him special and gives him such a devoted following?
JC: I can put it one word: Vision. He has a vision of something that seems almost ambiguous to some people, because you can’t really explain it. Anybody who has that kind of personality and willingness to explore, has a vision. There is almost a shamanistic, mystical thing that follows him around. You look in his eye and there’s a sparkle, a something there, and it’s beautiful! He’s like one of those holograms, where you see one thing from one angle, but when you look at it again, it’s different.
RJ: When did you first meet Bela Fleck?
JC: About five years ago. I had been running a jam session for a couple of years here in Nashville and met this drummer who was a good friend of Bela’s. He said that we should get together. A couple of days later I met Bela in Colorado. He kind of looked at me strange and said “I just got a message saying to look you up when I get home.” When we got back from Colorado, I brought over some Ornette Coleman and some standards, and some of my originals, and we just had a ball.
RJ: Even though you play very different instruments, it must be inspirational to play with someone who is widely considered the greatest living master of their instrument. How has playing with Bela influenced your own playing?
JC: It is inspirational. He plays some shit sometimes that is just ridiculous! I don’t think he realizes sometimes how amazing he is. He is respected worldwide for being able to play anything. You can just throw him in to any musical setting, and he is like a cat, he always lands on his feet. This year at High Sierra he did a workshop with Trilok Gurtu, and the shit was amazing, but they had never played together!
We were talking about vision earlier, and that’s what sets certain people apart. There are great musicians all around the world, but what sets Bela apart is that he has a vision for what he wants. We discuss it all the time. He is one of those people who is always looking forward.
There is some stuff that he plays that is incredibly difficult to play on. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it is. Some things that Bela comes up with on banjo just aren’t meant to be played on sax! There is one song we’re doing, with Chris Thiely from Nickel Creek on mandolin, that has a tempo marking of 300, it’s like a , it may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to play. Nobody would ever write that for a horn, EVER! It makes me work (laughs)
RJ: In your work with the Vibration Arts Ensemble, what kind of musical atmosphere are you trying to create?
JC: The Mu’tet came out of that, because it’s a mutution of VAE. That group keeps mutating and changing and trying a lot of different stuff. We have up to 15 people on stage. It’s like a mini-Zambiland, but a little more structured. It’s a different kind of chaos. There’s charts and stuff, but it’s really wide open. It goes to a lot of different places.
The problem I’ve been having is finding a venue here in Nashville that’s big enough to contain all that sound. I may be doing one in January, and I’m going to try and get Sipe up for that.
RJ: I notice that you seem to have a very spiritual approach to music. Was there any point in your life that you had a “spiritual awakening,” either from listening to music or playing?
JC: Life is full of epiphanies, if you know where to look for them. Music has always done something to me that I can’t really explain in words. The greatest moments musically, which are few and far between for all musicians, there is a connection to the divinity within yourself. There is a connection there, and you realize all is one. It’s like when you’re meditating, and you can feel your body dissolve away and you feel connected to everything. Of course, once you notice it or think about it, it goes away.
Music is a very powerful thing, a very healing thing, a spiritual thing. In order to create music, you have to delve into yourself in a very spiritual way. It’s a path I have found expression in, but whether you are working in a garden, or writing a poem, or whatever, it can be spiritual. It’s all in how you approach it.
RJ: This brings us back to Coltrane. Even 34 years after his death, he is such a monolithic figure in the jazz world, and his music still has so much power in it. Is it difficult to play in his shadow?
JC: There is a quote I think of sometime, it’s in the liner notes to the album: “Follow the line, not the style.” To me, that exemplifies where I am trying to look at music from. To try and imitate Trane is impossible, because you are never going to get out of that shadow, you have to create your own light. He was who he was because he was such a unique individual.
I recently went to San Francisco and went to the Coltrane church. They were playing his music and treating him like a saint, and I think that would bother him. He just looked at himself as a man and a musician.
He did have a powerful influence, though. The avant garde jazz of that time is still influencing things 30 years later, and I think that’s great. I heard the other day that Radiohead was listening to Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra and stuff like that when they were recording their latest album. That’s beautiful, man!
RJ: Coltrane helped introduce Eastern music to Western audiences, and some of your songs have an Eastern flavor. Do you have any favorite Eastern artists?
JC: I like a lot of African music, Oumou Sangare is a singer from Mali, she is amazing! She sounds like a bird. Paco De Lucia is a fantastic flamenco guitarist. Camaron was kind of like the Coltrane of flamenco. I saw him in Montreaux and it was the first time I had seen people weep at a concert. This was about ten years ago and it changed my life!
I heard some Egyptian music and Ethiopian music and it really knocked me out, and I thought “I should incorporate this into my writing.” Pharoah Sanders did an album called Trance of Seven Colors with Moroccan msuicians that is really fantastic.
RJ: Have you ever heard the Master Musicians of Joujouka?
JC: Those are the guys! Those are the people playing with Pharoah, and it sounds great. To me, those are all influences that I would like to incorporate into my work.
RJ: Playing with Bela has taken you all around the world. What is the most interesting gig you have played as a Flecktone?
JC: Everything from playing with Chick Corea and John Scofield to playing in Prague with 2000 people packed like sardines. You would think “Who knows about us in Prague?,” but these people were totally into it. Going to Estonia and Lithuania, where 7 years ago it was part of the Soviet Union, and they just appreciate the music so much more because it used to be forbidden. Or going to Australia and having people who have never heard the group before flip out when Bela does a Bach prelude on the banjo.
Being a part of that is a really unique thing, and we all appreciate it. We get to try new things, and we have an audience that likes that. We’re just experimenting, we’re just fucking around sometimes!
RJ: How long have you been playing with the other members of the Mu’tet? What are their strengths as players, in your opinion?
JC: Derek (Jones, bass) is kinda new to us, he plays with Nickel Creek. We get him every now and then when we can. Right now our bass player is Felix Pastorius, Paco’s son. He is a great bass player, he and Tommy lock in fantastically together.
Tommy (Giampietro, drums) and I have been playing together for about five years. The first time we ever played together was one of those times when magic happened. He has a very unusual style and plays things differently than a lot of drummers. When we first got together, I wasn’t sure he could play. He has severe scoliosis, he has had maybe 15 operations. You would look at this guy and say “How can this guy play the drums?” Yoga is what keeps him healthy. I can’t say enough about him, he’s like family to me.
Chris (Walters, piano) also plays with Alabama!!!! (laughs)
RJ(confused): The country band? No way! Really?
JC: Really! He’s been playing with me for four years. He also has a record of his own that he is doing. Some of my favorite music on Go-Round is stuff that he plays. It makes me smile every time I listen to it, because it’s just like “How did he ever come up with THAT idea?”
RJ: Listening to Go-Round, a lot of the album had a refreshing sense of rhythm and swing. In the liner notes, you say “music must be moving, almost dancing.” Do you feel that jazz has lost sight of its roots as dance music?
JC: (thoughtfully) Well, yes and no. A lot of music doesn’t have that, you can’t lose it if you don’t have it. I think that’s one of the things that draws people to Phish, there is a movement to it, a swirl. I think that guys like Kidd Jordan, Cecil Taylor have that swirl and movement to their music. Medeski Martin and Wood have that, too.
But it doesn’t have to have a particular pulse to have a movement. A good example is if you go out to the desert, out in Arizona. If you look at tumbleweeds in the desert, they may not have rhythm, but they have movement.
Jazz needs new music. I don’t just want to play standards. It’s great music, but it’s been done before. If rock bands were just playing Chuck Berry songs, who would care? That’s why I like writing original music. The music needs to keep evolving and living, that is so important. I want to do a groove project, I want to do something with just percussion, anything to keep the music living and growing.
RJ: Name one relatively obscure artist that you would like to turn our readers on to.
JC: One guy named Otha Turner and he plays Mississippi fife and drum music. He’s 92 years old, goes out into the field and cuts his own cane, makes his own fife. He has 5 or 6 generations of family up on stage, drinking moonshine and playing old blues hollers. He has this one record with the Afro-Mississippi All-Stars. It’s like listening to an Alan Lomax field recording live!
RJ: What do you think of Karl Denson?
JC: I’ve gotten to know Karl over the past couple of years, and I’ve played with him a couple of times. He was at High Sierra last year and we got to jam and hang out. I’m glad he’s out there doing what he’s doing. He’s another person who has a vision about what he wants to do. Plus, he’s just a funky dude.
RJ: What does the next year look like for you?
JC: Definitely a lot of Flecktones stuff, in between that I am going to take the MuTet out and try and do more with that. I want to get in the studio again in January, and I can’t name any names, but I have an idea of who I want and what I want to do.
I want to get in the studio more this year and do more solo stuff. I want to get more music in movies, not like a soundtrack thing, but just incidental music, backgrounds, that kind of thing. Just trying to get more creative with what I have, study composition more, more listening, more practicing, become a better musician and a better human being at the same time…you know, that kind of thing…