Jeff Coffin doesn't worry about meeting an audience's expectations or fitting a critic's categorization. It's irrelevant to him and his current jazzy funk/improv combo, the Mu'tet. As open-minded improvisors with a lovely knack for mixing styles, the band might generally fit the tag "post-neo traditionalists." Not that they care, one way or the other.
"To me, you can dance to it all," says Coffin, speaking from a road trip to Utah last week. "That's the movement and spirit that I want music to have. As long as it's groovin' on some level and feels good, that's what's important."
Internationally revered as a skillful saxophonist, composer, and educator, Coffin is a three-time Grammy Award winner. He can ease into a simple sideman role, wail as a bold soloist, or play alto and tenor sax simultaneously in the wild style of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Since 1997, he's made playing with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones one of his main collaborations. Over the last few years, he's gained even more acclaim from within the jam band world as a touring a member of the Dave Matthews Band, stepping in for saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died in 2008.
Inevitably, Coffin's recent collaborations influenced his own playing. "I've had different roles with different artists, so it's had a lot to do with what comes out the other side," he says. "Playing with Dave Matthews influenced my music, because I really had to check him out quite extensively over the last few years. The way those guys played together influenced me, too. It all comes into play."
The Mu'tet gradually took shape the last two years, with Coffin and drummer Jeff "Apt. Q-258" Sipe (a longtime friend) initiating compositional and improvisational ideas. Sipe is admired by fans for his work with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jimmy Herring Band, Phil & Friends, and other projects. Coffin and Sipe recruited Kofi Burbridge on organ and flute, Felix Pastorius on electric bass, and Bill Fanning on trumpet.
"It was really about seeing what the configuration could bring to the music," says Coffin. "It was about seeing how this combination of musicians realizes a certain style of music and a certain composition of music. We continued to work it out and let it expand, and that familiarity got inside all of it."
Burbridge is known for his work with the Derek Trucks Band. Pastorius is one of the twin sons of the late jazz bass legend Jaco Pastorius. Fanning served in the Navy before working with Coffin and Fleck and others in the jazz/fusion world, including Chester Thompson, Bernard Purdie, Victor Wooten, and Bruce Hornsby. Most of the band performed together on stage at the ShineFest concert at the Joe in 2009 under the name the Sipe-Coffin Group.
"Everyone knows the music really well now, and it allows for a very expansive way of playing," says Coffin.
The Mu'tet's on-stage sound benefits from the technique and chops of the musicians, but the band as a whole works from a wide sonic pallete.
"We have to play our influences, you know? And there are so many of them to bring into the music," says Coffin. "It makes sense that there are a lot of colors and a lot of sonic textures to choose from."
Rhythmically, things on the band's latest album Mutopia bounce from style to style, from the soul/funk groove of "One In, One Out" and the New Orleans strut of "Tall and Lanky" to the more exotic, Middle Eastern-tinged "L'Esperance" and the odd time signatures of "Al's Greens." Overall, it's not easily defined with typical categorization.
"That's why we're called the Mu'tet, you know," says Coffin. "The idea is that everything is always changing and mutating. We're not a quartet or a quintet. We're a mu'tet."
A series of special guests added even more flavor to Mutopia, including Coffin's fellow Flecktone mate Roy "Future Man" Wooten (on drums), trumpeter Rod McGaha, sousaphonist Joe Murphy, and trombonists Barry Green and Roy Agee.
The combo already has their next studio album in the can. Recorded in Virginia in October, Coffin says it's a tighter, more focused affair, sans special guests. "It's all original material with just the five of us on it," he says. "It's really the very first time I've done a record like this since my first solo album. For this project, I prefer the smaller combo setting, for both the familiarity and the intimacy between these musicians."
Sipe's warm, inventive drumming style drives the rhythm section with ease. He's graceful and fluid, but powerful as well, whether the beat is straight-ahead or quite complicated.
"It doesn't matter what time signature it is, Jeff's always bringing it," Coffin says of his drummer. "He's the catalyst. He's playing so great, man. I've never heard him play so well than in the last year and a half. He's been shedding hard and really working on the music. He makes playing very difficult material look easy."
In addition to the Flecktones, DMB, and the Mu'tet, Coffin still books solo clinics and workshops. As an in-demand educator, he offers this nugget of wisdom to young jazz musicians and budding improvisors: "Work on fundamentals. That's the roots of what you're doing. The fundamentals are the most important things you can be working on. And identifying your own strengths and weaknesses. That's a good place to start, but you have to be honest with yourself about where you are."
That's helpful advice, no matter the vocation.