Interview with Jeff Coffin
By Matt Yette
September 13, 2012
Jeff Coffin is one of the most accomplished musicians you've ever heard. Three Grammys, three bands, an educator, a writer, a photographer, a husband, his own record label, and now, saxophonist for Dave Matthews Band. Jeff's *other* band, Jeff Coffin and the Mu'Tet, just released their latest album, Into the Air, on September 4th. We were lucky enough to run into Jeff at the Gorge, and he agreed to talk about his record, among other things. For those interested at looking inside the mind of an artist, there might be no greater subject than Mr. Coffin to examine.
Ants: You're one of the few people who can truly claim to be an artist in every facet of the word. You're a three time Grammy award winning saxophonist. You've been in three bands and collaborated on countless other projects. You're working with your former Bela Fleck & the Flecktones bandmates in an upcoming book/play-along that you wrote. You've given over 300 clinics to all levels of education. You have your own recording label. You're probably better at one of your hobbies - photography - than some professionals. What is it like to have that level of creativity inside yourself? Are you constantly taking note of things that pop into your head for further refinement, as if every day is a blank canvas waiting to be created?
Jeff: Wow! I never realized I was quite that busy…hahahaha…thank you for the kind words Matt. First off, I want to thank you for asking me to do this interview. I appreciate it.
I work very, very hard at what I do and in my life. I am always looking for what I term ‘creative ways of being creative’. For some people, they seem to almost smell of creativity and I wonder sometimes if it comes very naturally to them. For me, I have to really focus and work at bringing that out. I want it to be playful though too. I think we are all creative people and it’s a matter of finding out where that creativity is. I don’t know if I am an ‘artist’ per se. I am not in a position to make that determination from behind what I do - I do hope that I am creating something that is of that spirit and that others think of it as art. I am trying to find new ways through how I see and hear things. It’s not an easy process but certainly one that has rewarded me beyond any expectations I have had.
You asked about every day being a blank canvas. I sometimes feel that way and sometimes not. I think every day has a possibility of great change and of great creativity. I am not going to be the same every day so what I create has an ebb and a flow to it according to the space I am in. I find creating to be a pretty solitary process. When I write, I need space and quiet. When I take photos, it’s the same…but it’s the quiet in my mind that I really need to focus in on things and to ‘see’ what I want to do or to be open to the process of creation. I also write (not lyrics) and sometimes draw. I try to live by that idea of ‘finding creative ways to be creative.’
Ants:You just released a new album, "Into the Air", with your own band, Jeff Coffin & the Mu'tet, who you've been touring and recording with for the better part of 15 years, this September 4th. Given that the band's name is a play on the mutation of music over time, how would you say this record is different than your past studio efforts? Where did the inspiration for this album come from?
Jeff: Well, each of the cds I have put out have a decidedly different take on how I hear music. It continues to grow and change…it mutates. And it should. Music can’t be about staying in the same place and doing the same things. It cannot stagnate.
INTO THE AIR has a very different batch of music on it. This recording is also the most collaborative I have ever done. 6 of the 10 songs are co-writes with the band. I have always felt that if I could write with these great musicians, then something beautiful would happen. I think I was right! I love rehearsing music and working out parts and collaborating with creative people. I strive to be open to their ideas and directions but still retaining the idea and spirit of the tune. Every idea is tried but not every idea is used.
ITA has a lot of influence from different cultures of music from around the world as well as, of course, the N. American culture of music. There is Funk, African, Arabic, Blues, Jazz, Indian, Pop, Latin, etc…influences masked in throughout the compositions. I try not to be overt in these influences because I don’t consider myself an African or Arabic or Blues musician. I am heavily influenced by those styles and want to bring those influences out in the tunes though. I think this recording reflects that pretty well. ITA also has a very special guest of Lionel Loueke on electric guitar. He is from Benin West Africa and plays a lot with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, etc…and is a brilliant composer and player.
You asked about the inspiration for this recording. It comes from the people I play music with, the life I lead, my wife (for sure!), looking at nature, photography, I would say that everything influences me…all the positives and all the negatives. Some influences are more subtle than others however but they all make a difference.
Ants:iTunes classifies your album as simply "Jazz." If you could create your own genre to describe your music, and more specifically "Into the Air," without limitations on the length of said genre, what would it be?
Jeff: I would create a genre called ‘MUSIC’. The word ‘jazz’ is rather complicated (another whole discussion) and doesn’t necessarily fit for what I do. I play and write instrumental music. I really don’t know what else to call it. It’s all original so it hasn’t been around before. I don’t want to name it because I think naming something limits the possibilities. Picasso didn’t name the ‘style’ he painted. Stravinsky didn’t name the ‘genre’ of music he wrote. I am not in any way comparing myself to these artists but I am trying to point out that it is our job to create, not necessarily to name. So, I will leave that up to others. At the end of the day, I want to be playing ‘music.’
Ants: Do you find it difficult to maintain chemistry with different groups in overlapping time periods? For example, there was a time when you were touring with the Flecktones, DMB and the Mu'tet over a relatively small time period. Does that switch just flip when you get into a groove with a different set of guys?
Jeff: Chemistry is a cool thing when it happens and it sucks when it doesn’t. The great thing about DMB, the Flecktones and the Mu’tet is that the chemistry is remarkable.
Everything we do in life is a relationship and every relationship needs attention and work. Some relationships need more, some need less. When the chemistry is working well, it’s easier to work on those relationships because they feel good. Communication, compassion, understanding, listening, etc…all these things are part of that development. We have to work hard every day to keep ourselves open and that helps the chemistry to flow.
And yes, it just sort of flips on…there is always a slight transition period when groups come back together but it’s quick and fun to see and feel that. Sort of like when we come back off the road to our families…it’s exciting.
Ants: Speaking of chemistry, I saw you play as part of the Flecktones at Cornell University shortly after "Outbound" was released. There was one song that went for about 15 or 20 minutes, and sounded as if you guys had been playing it for years. Time signature changes, complete tonal shifts and everything else that we've come to expect from a Flecktones jam was included. At the end of the song, Bela came to the mic and said, "Jeff wrote that on the bus yesterday." How are you able to achieve that level of harmony with your bandmates? Are there secret cues that you work out that are difficult for the audience to notice, or is there some level of telepathy at play here?
Jeff: We are telepathic. Hahahaha…It comes from being able to listen and to react to each other musically. It actually feels telepathic sometimes though. Playing music is like having a conversation so these ‘shifts’ as you called them, come pretty naturally if you are familiar enough with the way someone plays. It happens every night with DMB as well. It happens nightly with the Mu’tet. If you think about a great conversation and the where it starts and where it ends, they are usually different places. How did you get from the beginning to the end is an enigma sometimes…but it’s through listening and being open that this occurs. Just like music!
Ants: Most people reading this interview learned about your music through the Flecktones' guesting with DMB starting in the 90s. Through listening to the tapes, there was a clear chemistry between the two bands. How did two bands who, for all intents and purposes, have completely different sounds, develop such a bond on- and off-stage?
Jeff: Interesting enough, Vic/Futureman and Carter all grew up in the same area in Virginia. They have known each other for years. Again, how to describe chemistry…sometimes it just works. These two bands area a good example of that. I think it has to do with musicians being open and being great listeners. But I know there is more to it than just that…I think that is the beautiful mystery of art.
We would all hang too and that is a part of developing bonds that last a long time. LeRoi and I would totally geek out on saxophone talk - trying each others horns and talking about gear etc…we could clear a room in record time! hahahahaha We had a lot of fun hanging out and talking shop.
Ants: When LeRoi Moore was injured during the summer 2008 DMB tour, the band turned to you as his short-term fill in, and when tragedy struck, you were asked to come in full time. At that point you'd been with the Flecktones for over a decade. Was there any tension when you moved on from the Flecktones to DMB?
Jeff: None whatsoever. I talked with Bela about it pretty extensively and we decided it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I should do it. The Flecktones had been off quite a bit around that time as well and no one really knew what was coming up next. We had really taken the band and the music to a very high level and we were all doing other projects too. Knowing what we were doing next in the incarnation of the band was not figured out yet. We played music together for 14 years. I know we will make music in the future too. We are all great friends and they are family to me. I love them all.
Ants: When developing your sax parts for DMB, how did you approach it? Did you attempt to emulate the DMB/LeRoi sound, did you consciously try to avoid that, or did you just let the song and the sound dictate what needed to happen?
Jeff: I am always thinking about what LeRoi played and HOW he played it. The sound of the band is partially about his sound and the way he approached the parts. Certain things I play every nite are in homage to him. Most people won’t know what those things are but I do and it’s important to me to acknowledge him through music. I think he would enjoy what we are doing up there. He was very open and he listened to a lot of different music. We enjoyed talking about that.
A very important thing to remember is that you cannot replace someone. I am a very different player than LeRoi and it’s important to retain who I am as a musician while at the same time, understanding my role in this music and understanding the lineage of it. I consider music to be a service and I am trying to serve the music, the musicians and the audience the best I can at every moment.
Ants: Are you still in the learning process for older DMB material, or does it ever stop? Are there songs that you'd like the band to play that might be your old-time favorites that still sit in a dusty chest somewhere?
Jeff: I am always in the process of being sure I have the music together. The catalog is HUGE and the band does not rest. We rehearse pretty often on show days and we are always working on a new tune or arrangement. This is NOT a band that rests on what they have done in the past. That’s one of the things I love about playing with them. If there is a tune we have not played in a while, I am listening before the gig. I do my homework so I feel prepared to create. I have a job to do and I take it very seriously.
Ants: Which instrument is your favorite one to play? Have you ever played the Contrabass or Subcontrabass saxes?
Jeff: The tenor and soprano are my favorites. If I had to grab one horn going out the door, it would be the tenor. I have not played the contrabass but u have played a bass sax before. Really fun! There are a lot of cool instruments out there to still try. It’s very exciting!
Ants:You've clearly developed a rapport with Rashawn Ross. What is the most challenging part of what you guys do up on stage?
Jeff: I can’t say enough about Rashawn. He is the reason this has all worked for me. When I first came in, he was there helping me sketch out the parts and showing me the ropes. He is a tremendous talent and he provides a real core for everyone musically.
I think we have really learned to play together well. We know each other’s playing well and we learn from each other too, of course. I have learned a lot about playing in a section from him. With the Flecktones, my role in the band was different and I have learned a lot by having my role change. I think the most challenging thing is to play like a single unit every night. We are really trying to make that happen. Listening is the key and we are all good listeners so that helps. Another thing that can be a challenge is playing together on solos. It’s a lot of fun but staying out of each other’s way can be tough. Sometimes it works great and other times we step on each other a bit. I really enjoy making music with him.
Ants: You may be the most understated photographer in capturing real life in photography. How do photography and music sync up for you, and does one inspire the other?
Jeff: I feel that music and photography are pretty similar in a lot of ways. The arts tend to compliment each other in the way that things intersect and interact. I try to look for the emotion in a photo the same way I listen for the emotion in a piece of music. I enjoy musical composition and I enjoy photographic composition. They are very similar in how they are put together. I like the depth and the humor and even the absurdity in the arts and knowing that we can create anything we want to. We don’t need anyone’s permission to express ourselves and we can create through any medium we choose. I am certainly inspired by photography and I love checking out other people’s work the same as I do with music. My photography has become a travelogue of sorts and I love revisiting them. I would love to do some gallery shows and I am planning on selling some of my prints in the not too distant future. I would love to combine doing gallery shows with bringing in the mu’tet (or other configurations) to play for the openings. It’s all a matter of finding the time in my schedule to make it happen. But I will!
Ants: What does the future hold for you, and what goals have you set out for yourself going forward? Accomplishment-wise, it's hard to think of anything that's missing from your dossier. What is it that keeps you going the most?
Jeff: I’ll answer the last part first. It’s the endless possibility of creating that keeps me going. The curiosity of what’s possible. What will I write next? What will I sound like in 5 years? How do I get over the hurdles that are in front of me? I have a lot of questions…
As far as other goals, I would like to do some play-a-longs of my music. I would like to work with some orchestras. I would like to take the Mu’tet overseas and continue having a solo career when I am not out on tour with DMB. I would like to bring my creativity to a higher level. I would like to work with other cultures of music and their musicians – such as India and Brazil. There are lots of goals but I realize the most important part of achieving goals is the path we take to get to them.
Regarding the future, I hope it holds great things. I want to continue to play and write with high level musicians. I want to learn more about composition and do larger arrangements of music. I would like to eventually teach at the college in a cool town or city. I am really passionate about education and it is something I am good at. I would like to dig deeper into that for sure.
I have been very lucky in my career but I have worked very hard also. Playing music and being on the road is just a microcosm of real life. I learn a lot from the people I am around and I am very grateful for everything. I love what I do and I love the people I do it with. I’m truly living the dream.
Jeff Coffin and the Mu'Tet's new album, Into the Air, is available on iTunes and cdbaby. I've been listening to it since its release, and it is already one of my favorites. Do yourself a favor and pick it up!
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