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Published: 2012/08/31
by Rob Slater

Jeff Coffin: Into the Air and Away From the World

Not many musicians will jump on a 50-show tour with a national act, all the while making yet another solo record, holding educational clinics, and finding time for his photography obsession. Then again, not many musicians are Jeff Coffin. The saxophonist (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Dave Matthews Band) is a busy man this year, with his Mu’tet album, Into the Air, due out on September 4th. A week later, his latest project, the Dave Matthews Band, will release their seventh LP, Away From the World, on September 11th. Jeff spoke with us about the Mu’tet, the Dave Matthews Band, his passion for education, and what the future holds for the busiest man in music.

I know the Mu’tet lineup is always evolving, hence the name of the band (Mutate), so who do you have playing on the album this time around?

Well, we’ve got Jeff Sipe on drums, Felix Pastorius on bass, Kofi Burbridge on keyboards and flute, and Bill Fanning on trumpet and what we call “space trumpet”. And of course myself on saxophone and what we’re calling “electrosax” also. I use a lot of different pedals when we play- so that’s where that comes from. We also have a really special guest, a West African guitarist named Lionel Loueke, he plays a lot with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter- guys like that.

I’m glad you brought him up, because he’s an interesting selection for the album. He’s sort of an x-factor on the whole album, I take it?

Not really, he’s only a couple of tracks. It’s awesome to have him on it. I think the whole band is an x-factor to be honest. It’s a really interesting record, it’s the most collaborative record I’ve ever done. I had sketches of tunes I had written out, and then I brought Felix down to Nashville to do some more writing with me. He and I had written in the past and I really enjoy writing with him, so by the time we got to the studio, we all collaborated further on some of the stuff and put it together, so it’s a very uniquely collaborative record.

How’d you get connected with Lionel Loueke initially?

Well, initially, I think we met somewhere on the road with the Flecktones, and then he was doing a clinic in Knoxville that he was going to, because my wife went to school there for her Masters program, so that’s where we met. He ended up being in town when I was there and we were talking and ended up exchanging info. When I first heard his record Caribou, which I believe was his first solo record, I was totally knocked out. I just said, “Wow, this guy has a completely different language than most improvisational jazz records up until this point.” And I was really intrigued by his music and I really liked him personally, and so, some of the music I had written on the record- there’s one on it called “Loueke” that was definitely influenced by hearing his music.

I’ve been listening to African music for 25 years now, so just assimilating those different styles and different sounds, that was really fascinating to me, and then I talked to him about possibly recording on something. It was just a matter about waiting it out timing wise for it to happen. I was completely content to do that. And we brought him down to Nashville, it was September of last year, and he had basically 24 hours. So we went in the studio and had a great hang, Victor Wooten came over to the studio and we were all hanging out because he’s known him for a while also. We did a whole lot in 24 hours. A whole lot of stuff. It was great. It was a really fascinating process for me to take someone like him and playing his approach and to weave it into what we were doing.

I’m familiar with a lot of your work, and the one thing I always appreciate is how many musicians you’ve collaborated with in the studio. You’re clearly not afraid to take someone with a different sound and throw them in there to see what happens.

Yeah, I’m not because we’re all kind of dealing with the same material, and that’s the whole idea of the Mu’tet is that it has to change- it has to be morphing and trying new things to keep it alive. I really appreciate what people bring to it- I want them to bring themselves to it.

What are some of the qualities and characteristics that you look for when recruiting a musician to play with the Mu’tet?

I’m looking for chemistry. I’m looking for people that really work well together, people that when they play they play like composers. Basically, I want a band full of composers, because that in turn allows them to realize the music is a way that really opens it up, you know? That they’re going to think compositionally about how they solo- their parts- all these different things.

That leads us into the songwriting process for the Mu’tet- how did it work this time around?

Well I had most of everything sketched out before I had Felix come down, as far as these ideas for the tunes, so we just went further with it harmonically and even melodically, form-wise, that kind of thing. So basically I brought the ideas in and said, “okay, this is what we have.” I may have had an mp3 demo of it, but basically these are the parts and let’s put it together in a way that makes sense to us and that feels good and let’s try some things and move solos around and basically see what happens with it. It was a very organic, what I would call holistic process. It really worked out well, I’m very happy with it.

It sounds like you’re excited about it, for sure. And you’re releasing it on your own record label?

Yeah, I started it last summer, when we put up the live Mu’tet record last summer. People were clamoring for it and I was like, “Well, okay, let’s just put it out ourselves,” so I just decided to start my own little label and I kept writing down names and ideas and I came up with Ear Up Records. We have a couple things on there, a couple of my original projects, and I’d like to release some other things on there, but I want it to be music that I really believe in. Music that has the integrity that I feel I try to bring to the plate every time I’m up. So, this will be the third official release on that label.

It gives you a sense of freedom, I imagine. In a way, it fits along with the theme of the music as well.

Definitely. Another thing I try to do also is I try to bring in, I do a lot of photography too, so I try to bring in the artwork for the project as well. Whether it’s a photo I’ve taken- whatever it is. I’m trying to use all my own resources that are at my disposal.

I know you guys are going out on the road in August when you’re on break with DMB, but do you have any future road plans with the Mu’tet?

Well, it all depends on the DMB schedule. For the lineup that’s coming out, I’d really like to do the five people that were on the record at some point this fall if everyone’s available, but obviously you have to work around some schedules.

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