Fairly or unfairly, Jeff Coffin is known primarily as a sideman and a substitute: The multi-instrumentalist replaced harp wizard Howard Levy in Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, and then he stepped into the gap left in the Dave Matthews Band after the sudden death of saxman LeRoi Moore.
But Coffin has also been making his own music for nearly 20 years, and anyone who saw the Jeff Coffin Mu’tet’s incendiary performance at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center this past spring knows just how wild that music can get.
The Mu’tet – which also features Derek Trucks Band keyboardist Kofi Burbridge and second-generation bass wunderkind Felix Pastorius – is one of the featured acts at the 10th annual Port of Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival in Albany’s Riverfront Park on Saturday, and Coffin was kind enough to give us some time out of his chock-full schedule:
Q: According to your Wikipedia profile, you play saxophone, clarinet, flute and oboe. Which instrument came first, and when?
A: Actually, i don’t play oboe. It’s too hard! (Laughs) I started on sax in the fifth grade in Dexter, Maine. I picked up flute after that, and then clarinet after flute.
Q: Why do you think so many sax players are multi-instrumentalists? For instance, the number of instruments your old instructor Joe Lovano plays is getting close to double figures!
A: Well, there are a lot of saxophones, first off: Contrabass, bass, baritone, tenor, C melody, F mezzo, alto, soprano, sopranino, soparillo… Whew! There are a few that are new additions that are hybrids, as well. Lots to choose from, some of which Lovano plays. We are also expected to ‘double’ on clarinet and flute, as well, but it’s sort of like expecting a trombone player to double on french horn: The instruments are vastly different, even though they have some overlap. Because there are many members of the clarinet and flute families, we tend to explore those instruments, too.
Q: Talk a little about the Jeff Coffin Mu’tet’s appearance this spring at College of St. Rose – how it came about, and what you remember about the show.
A: I remember it being a very cool room and that it was a lot of fun to play it. We do a lot of clinic work at schools, as well, and we try to do gigs when we do clinics. The band is very involved when we do these – it’s not just me – and we take a lot of questions and talk about a lot of aspects of what we do, and how and why we do it. It’s all very casual, and meant to be that way to break down whatever barriers may exist between the audience and the musicians.
Q: The thing I love the most about the Mu’tet is the funk influence that runs throughout the music. Does that direction come from you, or is that something that’s evolved as the band has developed? Also, are you familiar with the music CTI Records put out in the ’70s? Because I was having CTI flashbacks all through your show!
A: I think it comes from everyone. I write the majority of the music, and that influence is most definitely there. We all grew up listening to some sort of funk, of course. We have to have our influences in the music, or we are not being true to our roots. I am familiar with the CTI music, of course – some great stuff from that time period. Thanks for the compliment!
Q: During your show at CSR, you played alto & tenor sax at the same time. When was the first time you saw someone doing that, and when did you first try it yourself?
A: I never saw anyone do it live, but i knew about Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was his influence that led me to think, “Hmmmm, I wonder what if…” The first time I tried it was on a gig in Nashville with a quartet I was playing with, which incidentally had (Mu’tet member) Bill Fanning on trumpet. We have been playing together for 20 years. How time flies!
Q: A little while after you played CSR, the Mu’tet did some gigs that turned into the 2-CD set Live. Tell us about the disc, and the shows they came from.
A: This is the first live CD I have ever done with the band. I am very happy and proud of the way it turned out. We had three shows multi-tracked in Pro Tools, and I took the best of those shows, not using any of the music that we recorded in October, 2010 for the next studio CD, and tweaked a few things and did all the leg work to get it out. That’s the CD we are touring now, and it will be available at the show. People can also listen and/or download the live CD online at Ear Up Records. It’s pretty slammin’, if I may say so.
Q: What was it like joining bands that had very established, rabid fan bases — first with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, and then with the Dave Matthews Band?
A: Intimidating and exciting! In the beginning, the fans knew the music better than I did.
Q: The Dave Matthews Band Caravan – a multi-act traveling festival featuring groups like O.A.R, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Gogol Bordello and the Roots – was scheduled to play Governor’s Island in New York City the weekend Hurricane Irene came to town. Needless to say, a lot of changes had to be made in a very short time. How did it all come out?
A: We played Friday, and then got the heck out of New York City! We were all disappointed, but knew it was the right thing to do. We are planning to go back and do the dates in the near future. Be sure to check Dave’s website for more info on the rescheduled dates.
Q: One thing people probably don’t know is that you are one hell of a photographer. You’ve done concert photos, nature photos, and compositional pictures that are more than suitable for a gallery showing. How long have you been taking pictures?
A: Thank you. I have been shooting for 10-plus years now. I have taken over 500,000 photos at this point, all digital. It’s become more than a hobby for me, and I really love it. It’s part travelogue and part artistic movement. I look at photography and music much the same way. If folks are interested, they can go to my photo website to see more. I am lucky to have the access that I do, but I don’t abuse it. I don’t sell photos of people I work with. I do it mainly for the pleasure of it, and I hope to do a few exhibits this year.
Q: Your bio says that you see photographic composition, musical composition and improvisation as going hand in hand. Please expand on this.
A: The word improvisation comes from a Latin root ‘improvisio,’ which means ‘unexpected’ or ‘surprise.’ That’s what I am looking for in music, as well as in photography. How something gets ‘composed’ has to do with how you ‘see’ or ‘hear’ it. I can almost hear a photograph, and I can almost see a musical composition. It’s similar also in that they both have form and structure and a story to tell. A visual piece can give rise to a question just as much as a musical piece can. They are very similar in many ways to me.
Interview by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
The Port of Albany’s Riverfront Jazz Festival takes place at Albany’s Riverfront Park in the Corning Preserve on Saturday, and admission is free. Here’s the schedule of performances: the winner of Friday’s Downtown Albany Jazz Fest Competition (12noon), Michael Benedict & Bopitude, Simone (2:15pm), the Jeff Coffin Mu’tet (4pm), Big Sam’s Funky Nation (5:30pm), Kevin Eubanks (7pm) and the closing fireworks celebration (8:15pm).