Jeff Coffin, Inc.

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Jeff Coffin has created his own cottage industry as an artist, educator and label executive.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Jeff Coffin, the saxophonist best known for his ongoing work with the chart-topping rock group Dave Matthews Band and his 14-year tenure with the triple-Grammy-winning jazz-bluegrass outfit Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, has become his own cottage industry.

He fronts several groups, runs his own internationally distributed label Ear Up Records and self-publishes big band charts of his original tunes. Based in Nashville since 1991, the 55-year-old multi-reedist, composer, bandleader and educator is constantly teaming up with other artists and diving into worthy causes. He’s a paragon of musical entrepreneurship and artistry who’s remained in overdrive mode throughout the COVID-19 global lockdown.

Coffin’s talents range as widely as the many musical genres he trades in. He has released dozens of recordings and counting as a leader or co-leader, works as a Yamaha Performing Artist & Clinician, serves as a Boston Sax Shop Ambassador and teaches improvisation at the prestigious Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. He has authored several instructional books for musicians, as well as a new series of children’s books coming out this year. Coffin operates his own studio, which he calls Into The Air, a tricked-out spot above his garage where he produces, engineers and mixes his own recordings. His onstage energy, melodically driven compositions, dedication to education and passion for improvisation have earned him the admiration of jazz musicians and music lovers around the world.

A genuine artist who knows no frivolity, Coffin has been generous with the fruits of his success in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — which has led to widespread cancelation of gigs, lessons, touring and recording sessions — and a pair of recent natural disasters that have hit the Nashville area especially hard. A tornado last spring wreaked havoc, trashing an entire neighborhood, and in late March of this year the whole region was overwhelmed by a devastating derecho that produced severe winds and flooding.

When DownBeat reached Coffin by phone on March 30, he expressed real concern for fellow musicians whose lives were upended by the previous weekend’s storm. He wanted to help in any way he could. “Some friends of mine lost everything,” he said, ticking off a list of instruments and gear that were waterlogged beyond repair.

Amid all the wreckage of the past year, Coffin has found ways to funnel money back into the local community in support of musicians who have been unable to make a living. He has been presenting weekly online concerts from his home studio via Facebook, soliciting donations from viewers (through the website itastudiostreams.com) in the process. So far, Coffin has collected about $10,000.

“That money is all going directly to local musicians,” he said. “I’m continuing to do those with different guests each week, and I look forward to the prospect of being able to actually bring cats into my studio and pay them like it’s a regular gig” once it’s safe to do so. Coffin also hopes to start curating live shows at Nashville venues like Rudy’s Jazz Room and the Jazz Workshop.

As for his own career, Coffin has put out several new studio recordings during this period of canceled tours and shuttered clubs. Last April, he released the three-tune Songs Of Solitude, a sparse affair featuring bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Jordan Perlson and Coffin’s wife, Ryoko Suzuki, on harmonium. This year, he has already released two full-length duo CDs: Let It Shine with the visionary cellist and vocalist Helen Gillet and Symbiosis with beat-box saxophone sensation Derek Brown. Looking ahead, he has more albums in the can and ready to hit, including recordings by Band of Other Brothers (with Coffin, bassist Will Lee, keyboardist Jeff Babko, guitarist Nir Felder, drummer Keith Carlock), The Nu Gurus (a group Coffin recently formed with up-and-coming Nashville musicians) and two trio releases: a fresh new recording with Krauss and Perlson, and a album with The Veridian Trio (Coffin, Perlson and electric bassist Felix Pastorius) that dates back a few years.

Coffin’s duo recordings are fascinating, in-the-moment affairs that indulge his taste for intimate musical interaction with likeminded artists. In addition to his pre-pandemic studio collaborations with Gillet and Brown, he recorded The Moment Of Now (2018) with drummer Roy “Futureman” Wooten, Flight (2018) with percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and Duet (2011) with drummer Jeff Sipe.

Coffin first met Gillet — an embracer of looping technology and master of extended techniques whose creative output melds elements of rock, punk and Belgian folk music — in New Orleans, through the late saxophonist Tim Green, an unsung local hero. The two began improvising together at Gillet’s solo gigs whenever Coffin came through town. In preparation for their performance at the Side Bar during the 2019 NOLA Jazz Fest, Coffin composed five new pieces for woodwinds and cello.

“After the gig, I said, ‘We should record this stuff,’” said Coffin, who had hever written for cello before. “So Helen came up for three or four days and we did it all right here in my studio.”

Coffin found the experience enlightening. “She’s a spirit, man,” he said of Gillet. “She’s so intuitive, and she has this almost shaman-like quality to her. She has that malleability factor. There’s no judgment; it’s pure, open. And she just brings the light, you know? And the way she plays that instrument … she works it in a way that it becomes every instrument. I remember Wayne Shorter saying one time that the saxophone can be any instrument you want it to be: a muted trumpet, or a drum, or a piano, or French horn. When I hear Helen, I hear all those different instruments. She also sings French chansons. Helen is originally from Belgium, so she’s fluent in French.

“I’ve tried to take what Wayne said to heart also. I have a lot of different instruments: sopranino through baritone saxophones, all the flutes, clarinet and bass clarinet, a tárogató and various whistles. And I conceptualize those instruments sometimes as other instruments. So, for Helen and me, the sonic palette that we were able to work from was very interesting, and it encouraged us to keep trying new things.” They played a total of 13 instruments between the two of them on Let It Shine, and they ended up calling in Roy Wooten to play cajon on two tracks.

“Jeff and I link up with knowledge of New Orleans rhythms,” Gillet said. “And that was very helpful when we were improvising together. I’ve modeled a lot of my rhythmic improv off of saxophone players. And the timbre that I can latch onto ... I feel like a tenor saxophone or a trombone, so it was fun to improvise that way.

“At times I was almost a little self-conscious to get as gritty and ‘out there’ as I can get,” she continued. “But Jeff has a way of welcoming everything that needs to happen. We’re coming from two separate vocabularies, and that’s what was so exciting: that it felt welcoming of our differences. And beautifully so.”

For the Symbiosis sessions with Brown in November 2019, the two saxophonists agreed to write most of the material on the spot instead of in advance. “I said, ‘Let’s not come in with any music. Let’s try to write some stuff from the ground up,’” Coffin remembered. “And we just started playing and working stuff out. We would play all the parts and then kind of piece everything together like a jigsaw puzzle. Because it was all new material, Derek wasn’t able to prepare anything. He had to invent ways to do things on the spot. That’s the energy of the record, though, that we’re both holding on for dear life.”

Coffin met the one-man saxophone groove machine years ago while he was giving a clinic at a college in Texas where Brown was a teacher.

“When I do these clinics, I do some solo stuff,” Coffin said. “And Derek heard me doing some of these alternate-techniques things, like slap-tonguing and multiphonics. And he said, ‘It just clicked with me, that was the direction I wanted to go.’ But Derek obviously took it to a whole different realm. He’s inventing not only new ways of playing the saxophone. He’s inventing ways, like Wayne Shorter was saying, to make his instrument be anything he wants it to be. He’s conceptualizing it in a completely different way.

“I remember back in the early ’90s, when I was studying with Joe Lovano [after graduating from University of North Texas], one of the things he said was that your instrument should be any instrument of the of the ensemble. It can have the rhythmic capacity of the drums, the steadfastness of the bass, the harmonic expanse of the piano and the single line of a vocal or a saxophone. You can be all those different instruments at once. Derek is taking that idea to an extraordinary level and providing a lot of sonic structure, but there’s still a transparency to it. That’s the thing that blows me away: All of these parts are individual, and yet they have their own sonic space. The strata of sound is still there, and you can hear through it. And that’s hard for any ensemble to get, let alone one person.”

Coffin’s universe continues to expand, with new musical collaborations and business ventures always on the horizon. His Ear Up label has contracted the services of A Train Entertainment, an international distributer and publisher dedicated to expanding the horizons of independent artists. “They’ll be dealing with playlists and all the digital stuff around the world,” Coffin said. “Having help is important, but it has to be the right kind of help. I’m not a control freak in the sense that I want to control everything; I’m a control freak in the sense that it has to be right. And it has to represent my ideal of what I want the label to be, of how I want to present music and how the artists we are showcasing deserve to be presented. That’s why the motto of my label is ‘Music Handpicked by Musicians’: Because I don’t have to answer to anybody. I can lose money and like, OK, whatever. I don’t want to lose a lot of money, but I can lose a little. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some great gigs. I’m investing in my fellow musicians. I’m investing in people I really believe in. I’m investing in strength-in-numbers. It helps propagate the scene. And I’m in no hurry. It’ll build as it builds.”

Coffin’s side businesses continue to gain traction in the marketplace. His innovative 10 Improvisational Flute Etudes has been expanded into an entire series for alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, clarinet and (soon) piano. A Coffin-penned children’s book titled The Rabbit, The Carrot, The Crow and The Canary, with illustrations by trumpeter Augie Haas, came out this spring, and he has a pair of kids’ books about musical instruments on deck. Connecting the Dots, an improv-teaching app developed by Coffin, is due out this year, and the saxophonist is looking forward to connecting with fellow saxophonists through The Sax Loft (thesaxloft.com), a new subscription-based educational website run by himself, Tia Fuller and Kirk Whalum.

Since the pandemic began, Coffin has written and recorded a bounty of new material. “I’ve got 30 new tunes that are slamming, with cats contributing from Brazil and New Orleans, George Porter Jr., Preservation Hall guys, DJ Logic — it’s all over the place,” he said.

As his conversation with DownBeat approached the 90-minute mark, Coffin mentioned that he was looking forward to an actual live performance coming up that weekend with the Wild Iris Brass Band, a Nashville-based group with four other horns and two percussionists he recently formed with trombonist Ray Mason, a recent transplant from New York.

“Ray is a big brass band guy who lives three doors down from me,” Coffin said. “We’ve done some pop-up gigs at the farmer’s market. We’ve got a bunch of cats from town playing, and my wife is playing tambourine. Ray and I have been writing tunes for that. We’ve got a gig this coming Saturday, and we’re going to do some recording afterwards.”

It’s just another typical day in the DIY world of Jeff Coffin, Inc.

“I’m trying to be creative through all this,” he said, pausing for a breath. “I’m trying to find creative ways of being creative.” DB



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