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Published: 2004/01/29
by Mark Pantsari

‘What Is It? It’s Just Music’: Jeff Coffin’s Mu’Tet

As one-fourth of Grammy Award winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Jeff Coffin has established himself as a one-man horn section capable of taking his arsenal of woodwinds to some truly far out places. In a group of a virtuosic, adventurous, and open-minded musicians, Coffin has aided in the Flecktones quest to discover new ways to play all types of music that just about anybody can enjoy.

With the release of 2003’s album, Little Worlds, the Flecktones vision of world jazz unfolded in a triple-studio album that covered nearly every spectrum of sound on the planet. And with a group of all-stars like Branford Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Nickel Creek, Sam Bush, Derek Trucks, the Chieftains, Jerry Douglas and several others; the Flecktones also demonstrated a passion for surrounding themselves in the talent and ideas of other top-notch musicians.

These same philosophies provide a backdrop to that Jeff Coffin and his constantly-evolving (both in sound and roster) Mu’Tet. After studying under saxophonist Joe Lovano, Coffin moved to Nashville in 1991 where he played in bands, taught private lessons, and did session work (he appears on over 100 recordings). Since joining the Flecktones in 1997, Coffin has also devoted time to his solo efforts. His first album Outside the Lines was released in 1998 under the Jeff Coffin Ensemble. Commonality came out in 1999 and marked Coffin’s first release for Compass Records.

The Jeff Coffin Mu’Tet’s Go-Round came out in 2001. With the aid of Derek Jones (bass), Tom Giampietro (drums), Chris Walters (piano) Coffin explored his more straight-ahead jazz roots but still managed to let some Indian influences slip into the mix.

In most recent time off from the Flecktones, Coffin has been recording what will be his fourth solo release and third album for Compass Records. The album will feature Coffin again playing with Derek Jones along with Jeff Sipe, Victor Wooten, Chris Thile, Johnny Neel, and DJ Logic. The album should be out by late spring/early summer. Stay tuned to www.jeffcoffin.com.

I had the chance recently to discuss the Mutet’s current twelve-date Southeastern tour that kicks off January 30 in St. Augustine, Fla. and wraps up in Nashville, Tenn. on February 13.

Mark Pantsari: Before we get into the Mu’Tet, I have to say I was stuck in traffic for four-hours over Christmas and listened to Little Worlds in its entirety and it proved to be a good first listening. It seems you guys enjoy surrounding yourself with really good players

Jeff Coffin: There was a lot of fun stuff to do on that for sure. A lot of fun stuff. It was kind of like providence chose the people that were going to be on it, and it was really a lot of fun.

I took my mother to a Flecktones show and she quite enjoyed herself, so the appeal of the Flecktones is almost unbelievable to me.

It’s a really interesting group. I think the Flecktones is unique in the sense that the whole is greater than the parts. Everyone has successful solo careers and I’m just getting mine off the ground. People don’t usually know what I do solo-wise until they come out and check it out and it’s a totally different thing. A totally different thing. The stuff I enjoy writing and playing with my group is a lot of fun for everybody. We’re taking it to a different place with the stuff we’re doing live. It’s really a journey and each night it’s a different journey.

What are the origins of the Mu’Tet?

The name originates from the word mutate, because it’s always kind of a continual mutation of everything that’s going on musically that’s in our world. Everything from Indian rhythms to heavy funk, reggae, African bass stuff, jazz, second-line bass New Orleans stuff and kind of everything in between.

It’s just kind of an off shoot of stuff I’ve been doing for a few years outside of the Flecktones in Nashville. It’s something I take out on the road a couple of times a year when the Flecktones are off. We just go out and it’s great -it’s a lot of fun and a different experience from the Flecktones. It’s not really the same type of musicit’s basically all of my music and a bunch of stuff we co-write together. Lately I’ve moved into some new areas I’m really interested in including strange time signature things. There’s a song were doing now in 8 that’s like a James Brown funk tunelike Maceo meets India. And also just some weird phrasings of things and a bunch of new stuff I haven’t been doing on the road at all. It’s funky, it’s not like a jamband thing but it has some of those elements. It also has got elements of jazzkind of similar to John Scofield or Charlie Hunterkind of in the way they both use grooves. There’s some New Orleans influence for sure, but it’s really just a lot of things thrown into the mix. It’s kind of hard to describe as far as what is it?’ It’s just music.

My whole thought behind music any more is one of the things that’s been wrong with jazz over the last number of years is that you can’t move to it. I’ve listened to as much jazz as anybody I feelI’ve really checked out everybody. One of the things that I find is that people are gravitating towards it againthank Godand I think it’s because there has to be movement in the music. Even if it’s free there still has to be movement in it. Groups like Medeski, Martin, and Wood, even the Flecktones to an extent, Scofield to an extent and groups like Galacticthere are a lot of improvisatory elements in those groups. And what is jazz anymore? What are the labels of music anymore? To me, they’ve been blurred and skewed and run over and stomped on, you know, and amen to that.

I noticed that the line-up touring with the Mu’Tet is completely different than on Go Round.

Jeff Sipe has been the drummer lately but he’s going to be out with Susan Tedeschi (and the Grease Factor as well) so I wasn’t able to use him. The drummer we’ve got now is Doug Belote who was the drummer for Mike Gordon’s last tour. We’ve got this woman from Nashville on bass, Alana Rocklin. Tyler Wood is this young keyboard player who I met when he was in seventh grade by the way. He was a student at this jazz camp I taught at up in Maine and he came through Nashville last year and got in touch with me. We started playing and I gave him two days notice and asked to come back down and do some recording with meand threw him in with (Chris) Thile and Victor (Wooten) and Johnny Neel and he was just killing it. He’s ridiculous. I’m really excited to get it together and get everybody out there and just start hittingit’ll be bumpin.’

So the live show may be a little more raucous, if you will, than a Flecktones’ show?

I think so. The music is probably a little less virtuosic in the sense of things really technically-challenging like they are in the Flecktones sometimes on certain things. Obviously it’s different instrumentation, so it breeds a different kind of phrasing and different kind of approach to the music. The Flecktones have been such a huge influence and certainly that influence is there as well.

Sort of the play everything from everywhere’ approach?

Yeah, throw it all into the pot and make it groove. And that’s a big thing I think that’s a really big thing.

I imagine you haven’t played too many smoky rock clubs with the Flecktones recently either, is that sort of a different trip for you as well?

The Flecktones can't do too much of that anymore because of the size of the draw. It's nice though, it's a very intimate kind of thing to get that close. You can smell everybody.

I would imagine that can be a bad thing at times especially if you’re drawing in the jamband crowd.

Well you know, everybody smells. Everybody smells. Ain't nothin' wrong with a little smell here and there.

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