Sunday, February 11, 2018

Jeff Coffin Mu'tet - 2008 "mUtoPIA"

A member of roots-fusion mavericks Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, GRAMMY-award winning saxophonist Jeff Coffin is one of the world’s most visible hornmen. As his insightful yet incendiary playing with the Flecktones demonstrates, Coffin possesses the rare ability to fuse the improvisational intensity of modern jazz with a wide range of influences.

Aided by an all-star cast of jazz, jam, bluegrass, and funk musicians, Jeff Coffin explores an impressive variety of textures and styles, gracing each with his peerless energy, musicianship, and technique. On Mutopia, Coffin presents the most complete picture yet of his eclectic musical vision. Two steps beyond an otherworldly fusion of Ornette Coleman, The Meters, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Mutopia puts Jeff Coffin at the forefront of a new generation of improvising musicians for whom boundaries are meaningless and everyone is invited to the party.

Jeff Coffin's work with Béla Fleck's Flecktones has only been somewhat reflective of his efforts as a leader. The saxophonist/composer is quite able in a more progressive, accessibly contemporary style to express his personalized music, which is in many ways substantive and cleverly rendered. While recent efforts have veered toward a commercialized approach, this CD with his Mu'tet bears distinct elements of the Jazz Crusaders and the first bands of Derek Trucks. No doubt the addition of a stout horn section on a few selections, and collaboration with the keyboardist and flute player Kofi Burbridge -- well known for his work with the Trucks band -- has a lot to do with how this group reacts and responds. All in all, there's some very hip music here, ranging from the 7/4 funk with dual electric bass guitarists on "Al's Greens" including a banjo solo from boss man Fleck, to "Move Your Rug" with varying beats in six and seven mixing up the complicated and simplistic horns with a New Orleans beat. The outstanding, developed, dramatic, Middle Eastern flavored "L'Esperance" is introduced by Coffin's resplendent, floating mbira, then his tenor sax and flute foreshadowed Burbridge's desert-to-jungle flute solo. "Turiya" is a calm, serene, and beautiful tribute to the late Alice Coltrane with Coffin on soprano sax and Burbridge on acoustic grand piano. The molasses slow "Sweet Magnolias" offers a legitimate blues framework for Coffin's legato tenor, and a bonus track, "Emma Ya," is a soul deep, light reggae tune. Trombonists Barry Green or Roy Agee are added for the funk-with-a twist track "Tag" or the Stax style soul pop cut "One In, One Out" respectively, with Burbridge jammin' on the Hammond B-3 organ. Agee, trumpeter Rod McGaha, and sousaphonist Joe Murphy expand the horizons of "Move Your Rug." Also present is electric bass guitarist Felix Pastorius, one of the twin sons of the legendary Jaco Pastorius, and fellow Flecktone, drummer Roy "Future Man" Wooten. The collective energy, team work, and top-drawer ability of Coffin, not to mention the diversity of the recording, is hard to deny. This might be the best effort yet for the Mu'tet, top to bottom.

When saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined Béla Fleck & the Flecktones in 1997, he righted their ship. That quartet had released three stellar CDs during 1990-1992, but when original keyboardist/harmonica player Howard Levy left, a void was created. The remaining trio of Fleck (banjo), Victor Wooten (bass) and Futureman (drum synthesizer) drifted before Coffin contributed to Grammy-winning comebacks from Outbound (2000) to The Hidden Land (2006).

Like all Flecktones, Coffin is better suited within that ace improvising quartet than on his own, yet two new solo projects point out his versatility. Coffin’s latest self-titled Mu’tet release improves upon his handful of preceding solo CDs, mainly because of his surrounding, interactive cast. Arc of the Circle, with keyboardist Charlie Peacock, is its polar opposite, an improvisational blend of modern classical and ECM-like influences.

On Mutopia, Futureman (Roy Wooten, Victor’s brother) plays acoustic drums throughout, rather than his guitar-shaped electric SynthAxe, and Fleck and Wooten appear on one track each. But it isn’t the Flecktones’ presence that makes Mutopia tick. Fleck’s cameo is on “Bubble Up,” a buoyant number in 7/8 time that’s highlighted by the Hammond organ lines of Kofi Burbridge (who adds piano and flute elsewhere) and Coffin’s two-man horn section with trombonist Roy Agee. On the dreamy “Al’s Greens,” Wooten trades solos with primary bassist Felix Pastorius, the 26-year-old son of late bass great Jaco. Their exchanges are so seamless that it’s difficult to tell them apart-no small feat, considering Wooten’s musical athleticism.

Coffin plays tenor, alto and baritone saxes on the New Orleans-tinged pieces “One In, One Out” and “Move Your Rug.” The saxophonist, who also plays soprano, flute and percussion, must be given additional credit for the coming-out party of Pastorius, the bravest young musician since Ravi Coltrane took up saxophone. Futureman’s dexterity on actual drums, and Burbridge’s all-purpose playing, add to a CD worthy of Flecktones comparisons.

Arc of the Circle merits no such comparisons, but that’s by design. Coffin and Peacock (who plays piano, synthesizer, Wurlitzer and toy piano) completely improvised the basic tracks before Marc Ribot (electric and resonator guitars), Tony Miracle (electronics and laptop computer) and guest players contributed to the derangements. Peacock may be best known as a producer who’s covered a wide spectrum from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to Amy Grant. He uses both grand and toy piano on the opening title track, engaging Coffin’s tenor sax into a game of musical tag.

Ribot and drummer Derrek Phillips contribute heavily to the subsequent, nearly accessible “Rice Dice Mice,” but most of the remaining pieces purposely avoid having a rhythmic anchor. Phillips plays on two other abstract pieces, “Downstairs Room of You” and “Redux: Porky, Boots and Floyd.” The remainder is mostly freeform Peacock and Coffin (on tenor, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and percussion). If your tastes run toward the Flecktones, Mutopia is the choice of these two releases; if you lean toward free jazz and Charles Ives, it’s Arc of the Circle.

Track listing:

1 Tag 3:29
2 Al's Greens 7:25
3 Bubble Up 5:26
4 One In, One Out 6:06
5 Turiya 10:14
6 L'Esperance 7:49
7 Sweet Magnolias 9:19
8 Move Your Rug 7:18
9 Emma Ya (Hidden Track)

Personnel:

Saxophone, Flute – Jeff Coffin
Drum – Roy Wooten
Electric Bass – Felix Pastorius
Piano, Organ, Keyboards, Flute – Kofi Burbridge
Guest – Alana Rocklin, Barry Green, Black Cat Sylvester, Béla Fleck, Chris Walters (5), Doug Belote, Pat Bergeson, R. Scott Bryan, Rod McGaha, Roy Agee, Victor Wooten

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