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Jeff Coffin: Mutopia Rising

Photo by Bryan Niven

Jeff Coffin is arguably the busiest man in music, and the last year or so has only helped to prove it. In addition to his main gig as The Flecktones’ saxophonist since 1997, he’s put out three solo albums with his ever-evolving rotation of musicians, the Mu’tet, since 2001. The group’s latest release never saw the light of live performance—until now. Mutopia, released in July 2008, features fellow Flecktone, Futureman on acoustic drums (Jeff Sipe will play drums live), Felix Pastorius on electric bass, and Derek Trucks’ current keyboardist Kofi Burbridge on flute and keys as well as a slew of guest collaborations including Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, DJ Black Cat Sylvester and more. Mutopia —placed on the back-burner when Coffin got a call from the Dave Matthews Band to fill in for the late LeRoi Moore in July 2008—will finally get some live exposure with four Mu’tet dates scheduled this October, and plans for more before the end of this year. As if that’s not enough, Coffin appeared on Umphrey’s McGee’s last two studio efforts: 2007’s The Bottom Half and 2008’s Mantis, and has performed live with the group on several occasions. He also played with My Morning Jacket during a 2008 Bonnaroo set and at its New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden last year.

Not 12 hours after DMB had begun the final leg of its extensive international summer tour on September 19th, the chameleon-like Coffin spent a sunny nearly-autumn morning on the PA side of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Between sets in Camden, NJ, the talented saxophonist riffed about his now year-old Mutopia, the echelon of musicians he’s assembled to support him on the upcoming mini-tour and a lot more. To put it simply, the guy had a lot to say.

You have four Mu’tet dates coming up in October. You said you’ve been trying to get this group of musicians (Jeff Sipe, Kofi Burbridge, Felix Pastorius) out for nearly four years.

This particular configuration, yes.

What is your relationship like with these players?

I’ve known Sipe for a long time from festivals and stuff we did with the Flecktones, and I knew about Aquarium Rescue Unit from when we first moved to Atlanta. I remember the first time I heard those guys, I literally pulled off the road, I was like, “_What_ is going on?” I had just moved to Nashville, so this was early ‘90s, and truly man, I was completely blown away. So when Sipe and I got a chance to meet, and eventually play together also, he was such a powerful musician, such a powerful, spirited musician. He was kind of the reason for enlarging the circle of players that I played with, he was kind of the impetus for that. I knew that I wanted to play with him so I made a real conscious decision to start using guys who were outside of Nashville, and to try to go and sit in with them also, and start to move that outward. So I’ve been playing with Jeff for years, he played on my Bloom record and he and I are in the middle of a duet project that’s being mixed right now.

As for Felix, I needed a bass player for a Mu’tet tour, and a couple of the guys that I normally used weren’t available, so I talked to Victor Wooten, and he said, “Call Felix.” I had met Felix a couple of times, but we had never played together, he was 19 at the time. So I called him up and asked if he was interested and available, and he said absolutely. So we’ve been playing together now like eight years. It was interesting, I remember as the gig got a little closer, I started to think, “Wow, I hope he can play this stuff,” because I never heard him play. But if Vic was confident in him, I’m confident in him. But every now and again there’d be this little tinge of concern, just hoping that it was all going to sort of work. I had this dream the night before Felix got there that I was sitting out somewhere under this big tree, and he came up and started talking about stuff, and for whatever reason the next morning, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be cool.” So Felix and I have been working on and off for a number of years, and he’s on Mutopia, he really sounds beautiful. He’s Jaco’s [Pastorius] son. A lot of people think he looks a lot like Jaco, the way he plays also, the gestures and whatnot. But he’s really got his own thing entirely. He sounds beautiful.

As far as Kofi, we’ve known each other forever. I met him at his Zambiland thing that Jeff Sipe used to put together, called the Zambiland Orchestra. It was kind of this loose conglomeration of about 80 people on stage at a time, and it was insane. It was a big fundraiser for Second Harvest Food Bank down in Atlanta and it was crazy. I was like, “_Wow_ this is great.” I think it may have been the first place that Sipe and I played together. He invited me down, and all of these guys came in from all over the place, and they were all connected with Jeff. And it was really incredible to meet these guys and play with them. So that’s kind of how I initially met them, and Jeff and I really lock in well together, so this configuration of players I tried to get together just about four years ago. Sipe couldn’t make [the recording sessions] at the last minute, so I let Futureman play and that’s when the gestation for Mutopia came about too—I was like, “I really gotta record this group.” Kofi is a genius as far as I’m concerned, he’s this beautiful combination of learned and street. The stuff he brings to the table is just phenomenal, how quickly he catches on to things. He’s studied classical flute since he was a child and the piano stuff—to hear his harmonic sense when he plays piano—dear God, it’s ridiculous. So I’m really excited about everybody playing together.

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