Jeff Coffin: Into the Air and Away From the World
by Rob Slater
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 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.
Can you give me a timetable on the recording process on this Mu’tet record?
I know it’s coming out a week before the new DMB album- was there any overlap? They were done at separate times. I wasn’t even sure when the Dave record was coming out when I picked the date for my release. I’m just glad they’re not on the same day (laughs).
With that we can transition into DMB a bit. Can you compare the recording processes between the two?
I actually can, because with the Mu’tet we had five days in the studio, which is fairly a long time for an instrumental, improvisational record. With Dave we were in the studio for two months. It’s a very different process because you’re dealing with vocals and more traditional song form and that kind of thing. So, it’s a very different process. For us, with the Mu’tet, we would start late morning and go to whenever we could go until. Whenever we couldn’t play anymore. With Dave, we would start early-mid afternoon and go for six hours maybe? And we would do that maybe every two or three days. There’s a luxury of time when you have a big project like that that you don’t usually have with the kind of music that I put out.
Are there any similarities with how you and (DMB trumpet player) Rashawn Ross created for this album compared to how you created for the Mu’tet?
It’s a bit different because the role is different. With the Mu’tet the horns take the lead line- we’re basically the singers. With DMB, what Rashawn and I are playing is more partial to support of the singer, so it’s a different role of course. As far as creating the lines- it’s similar in a sense that they come out of an improvisatory nature. With the Mu’tet, the lines, they aren’t really punctuations- they’re more like the vocal lines where with DMB the lines are more punctuational of what’s going on vocally and around the vocals, and supporting that. It’s hard to compare the two, but the process is similar in a way.
Obviously, Big Whiskey was a bit of an unusual recording session, particularly for you. This time around, you had a full recording process. What was your goal, along with Rashawn, as it pertains to the horns?
Rashawn is a great arranger, and he has really great horn ideas. I tried to defer to him a lot in writing the parts and figuring out certain things. He has this ability to really put things together which is really fantastic, and I have the utmost respect for that and how he plays the trumpet and how he views music. So, I wanted it to be as organic as possible, and I think we both kind of felt it out and I basically tried to stay out of the way as much as I could and if we came up with really great parts we’d work on them and see what made sense to the both of us. Again, I look at it as, he’s coming right from the source. He was under Roi [Late DMB sax player LeRoi Moore] for a number of years, and I would never try to put my foot in front of that, so I think that what he’s coming up with is brilliant, and I learn a lot from him every time we play. He’s also respectful to the things that I come up with too, so it’s a really great working and personal relationship.
I see you guys over on the side of the stage, and it’s like you’re in your own little world sometimes. It feels like anything can be played at any time with you two.
That’s what it feels like to me too, which is really great. We can try some really unorthodox thing and we can both execute it. So it’s really fun, it keeps it challenging and it keeps it interesting, I think.
LeRoi always envisioned a “horn section” with DMB, and that’s what I think we’re seeing right now at it’s best.
I think it’s been really great, and it keeps escalating every night. Honestly, I don’t think the band has peaked yet, I really don’t. I think it’s continuing to grow and continuing to form, and it’s really exciting.
You went into the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite, who has a storied past with Dave Matthews Band. Were you familiar at all with that history?
I was. I had never met Steve, but, I mean obviously he had produced a number of those early records. I heard The Lillywhite Sessions also, so I was familiar with his work with DMB and other groups as well.
What was your overall impression of him coming out of this session?
I loved working with him. Again, you talk about chemistry and familiarity- to me he has both of those. He has this ability to, again, allow people’s personalities to come out through the music, and when he hears something he’s like a little kid. He’s so giddy about it, and he’s so excited, and excitable. If he doesn’t like it- that’s okay too. He’ll just say, “eh, it didn’t work, let’s try something else.” And I just think he has this particular ability and particular virtuosity in the same way we have virtuosity as players and as composers and as arrangers. And it’s interesting, because I don’t feel like he ever told anybody what to do, I think he just advocated doing what they do and bringing it out, and sort of unlocking that creativity in somebody and saying, “hey man that was beautiful, let’s go back and do that again!” Again, rather than telling somebody what to do, when somebody would do something, he would go, “oh, I love that- do that again- take that idea and work it.” He’s like a great encourager.
And I would say that encouragement breeds great results in the end.
Well it does, because everybody wants to feel good, and so when you have someone encouraging and someone lifting you up and being an advocate, then it makes you feel good. That’s a similar approach I take in my education stuff also. I’m not negative at all, and I can always find something good to say. I can always find a way to lift a student up, and I feel like Steve has that similar constitution also in that- I just found him to be very positive and very light, very airy. But focused also. Intensely focused.
That focus that you talk about is what us fans have always heard about Steve- and I think that’s what partially drove them to produce three great albums in a row in the 90’s.
Someone coming in with a different perspective can always help, especially if you respect them. He never tried to take control of it, and he just sort of skewed it and gave directions.
I want to touch on the drummers for a second- you play with two of my favorites in Carter Beauford (DMB) and Jeff Sipe (Mu’tet). They are very different from each other, though. What is your approach and style of play with each, and how do they differ from each other?
Those are two of my favorites too! My approach isn’t very different, quite honestly. The way I play is fairly different, but my approach is to try to get inside what they’re doing. I try to be a very rhythmic player also, so I’m trying to find places where I can jump in between their rhythms and, I wouldn’t say enhance what they’re doing, but sort of feel like it’s an organic natural growth out of what they’re playing. And I try to be as malleable as I can be rhythmically with what they’re doing but really try to get inside where they’re coming from, from a rhythmic standpoint. I can hear elements of that particularly when you first started with DMB in 2008. I think we really got a good glimpse of how you and Carter were going to interact right off the bat, particularly with the way you two push each other during a jam. I think with Carter, we’re both very strong players, and very strong personalities as well and that comes out with how we play, and I think Rashawn and I are getting to get to that also, which is really great. When we’re trading back and forth on certain tunes, I think there’s a real push that’s going on during that and I really enjoy that.
As far as the music creative process goes- what are some of your favorite aspects of creating music with DMB, and what are some of your favorite creative aspects with the Mu’tet?
Hmm, actually, I think I have the same favorite parts with both. I love to rehearse, and I love to hear what people are creating underneath other things. Like, with Dave’s band, I think everybody is a composer, and I think that makes a huge difference. I’ve played with musicians who don’t really have any compositional triumphs, I guess. And it’s difficult, because they’ll listen to the part that’s on the record, and they’ll only play that. And, my thing is- I want to hear you. When I hear Stefan play a good bass line- that’s part of where his virtuosity lies. I think that people’s virtuosity is in a lot of different places other than just a physical, shredding virtuosity. That’s one of the things that I really love. When someone is so uniquely themselves that you hear them when they play- that’s a particular kind of virtuosity also. So, listening to people figuring out a new part or adding something that they haven’t played before- it changes the way everybody else plays. So it comes down to that particular kind of chemistry as well.
I think both projects you’re involved in right now have an incredible amount of chemistry.
I would agree. And why that works, I don’t know, but it does. And I’m very thankful that it holds. Very thankful.
Can you make chemistry work? Or is it just something that happens?
I don’t think you can force it, but I think you can develop it with familiarity, but sometimes you play with people and you go, “oh my God,’ and it just works. For whatever that reason is, I don’t exactly know. When you meet someone, you feel really familiar with all of a sudden, and then you can know someone for ten years and still have a bit of a distance, and why is that? I don’t know. One of the great mysteries of life.
You guys played with Stanley Jordan recently as well, and he’s another guy who has high chemistry and personality on stage.
Oh yeah, he’s a joy to play with.
Stanley played with another band recently that you’re familiar with, and that’s Umphrey’s McGee…
I was actually in New Years for St. Louis this past December and saw you sit in with them for two nights.
Yeah, I’ll be with them again this New Year’s in Atlanta as well.
How’d you get together with those guys initially?
We did some stuff with The Flecktones with them a few years ago, as a part of the Acoustic Planet tour, and we just totally hit it off. They asked me to come up for a New Year’s gig one year and we just had a blast. I love those guys.
They’re another group where anything goes.
Absolutely, and I love that about them. No rules whatsoever.
We’ve been talking about drummers a lot, and Kris Myers is right in line with the guys we spoke about earlier. He really drives the boat when it comes to their improv.
Oh, for sure. He’s a great musician, and a level human being also. That’s one of the things I find, you know, I do a lot of music clinics also as a Yamaha artist. A lot of times students will ask about how to get out there and make a living as a musician- like “making it”. I say that with quotations because I think you’re always trying to make it- even at a certain level, you’re still out there pushing. I see Bela out there pushing, and Vic and Roy and Dave and Stefan and Boyd and everybody, you know. I always tell them, I say, ‘the most successful musicians I’ve known have always been the nicest people,’ and I think there’s really something in there. Success is more difficult if you’re a jerk.
I’m going to get a bumper sticker that says that.
There you go (laughs)
You really spread out your creative outlets in a variety of ways- your photography is on that list as well. You say you bring that to the music- how does that tie in?
I got into it about 12 years ago, something like that, and I’m a little obsessive with it. To me, taking pictures and writing music is a lot of the same thing where you’re dealing with composition, phrasing, how to capture a moment. I’m just lucky- I used to write a lot, I used to draw a lot, and then when I discovered photography it sort of took over. I find that I remember almost every picture I’ve ever taken. When I look at it, I know where I was, I remember the moment, and it’s really interesting. I have a photographic memory, no I’m kidding (laughs)
*No pun intended. No, but I remember some of the shots you put up from the European Tour with DMB a few years ago and they were great.
Yeah, there were some really great spots out there. I just put up some new stuff a couple of weeks ago from the Caravan tour last year and some from this year.
I heard you were out at the Caravans taking pictures quite often.
Yeah, the thing with that is too, I tamper what I put online. I have a lot of really incredible shots that I don’t put up there because I’m trying to respect the privacy of the people I work with. So those are kind of archival for me, but there are certain ones I let out, but I try to be respectful of that because I appreciate the position I’m in. There are certain shots that I’ll get that no one will get, and I’m respectful of that.
You brought up music clinics a few moments ago. You seem very passionate about that- is it something you try to do every year regardless of how busy you are?
Absolutely. I’ve done over 300 clinics in the last three years or so, and it’s something I’m hugely passionate about, and quite honestly I think it’s the most important thing that I do. So, you know it’s college and high schools. We do them at schools we do them at music schools. Being able to expose them to other music is really important, that’s why I love taking the Mu’tet out with me when I do it, but I’m not always able to do that- so I’ll do a solo clinic sometimes. But I’ve also got a number of Big Band charts of my older tunes that I’ve had made up, so I can go into schools and work up enough of my tunes- we’ll do a concert. Getting these young people to improvise for the first time also is cathartic to say the least, and I have a particular report with students. I can’t explain why, but I can reach them really quickly, and I absolutely love it. It’s something I could talk to you for hours about, and it’s a real passion of mine.
I know you get into the music side of it all, but you also touch on the personal side of the music world. What is your overall message during one of these clinics?
A lot of times I’m really trying to get them to believe in themselves. I talk about working on fundamentals and the importance of fundamentals. As much as I’m talking to them, the more I’m listening to them. If we’re listening to music, if we’re talking about music- I want to know what they think, and I want them to know that their thoughts are valid, that their emotional content is valid. I try to get them playing with emotion, what I call “emotional dynamics”, because it brings the music into this really profound place for them that they haven’t experienced before. I talk to them about goosebumps, and ask them how many people have had goosebumps before, and without exception everyone has raised their hand since I’ve been asking that. So I point out that we’ve had this common experience and there’s something really profound in that common experience of goosebumps in music. That we’re there to support each other, how great it is to play in a band together, and the sum is greater than it’s parts. It’s sort of a life lesson. It’s using music as a metaphor, but it’s really more about- once I leave that place, what do they take with them? A sense of community, a sense of support, they know they have to work on their fundamentals no matter what they do in life- whether it’s music or architecture or science. So I want to leave them with a long tale.
Do you still get goosebumps when you play?
I get goosebumps when I listen to the music and when I play the music. I hope it never goes away!