jeff coffin: three band man

jeff cofffin will fill in for saxophonist leroi moore in the dave matthews band this summer.

jeff coffin will fill in for saxophonist leroi moore in the dave matthews band this summer.

How fitting that Jeff Coffin will find himself in a downtown Louisville baseball park tonight. After all, the saxophonist is proving to be rock ‘n’ roll’s top pinch hitter of the summer.

When LeRoi Moore, longtime sax man for the Dave Matthews Band, was seriously injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident in late June, Coffin was given the call. Familiar to the Matthews team through his decade-long work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, which frequently opened concerts for the band, Coffin was asked to fill in for the rest of what turned out a very full DMB performance year.

Though he immediately accepted the gig, considerable calendar juggling had to be done. There was promotion work on deck for a new album by Coffin’s Mu’tet band called Mutopia, which was due out in only two weeks. There were also high profile Flecktones performances in Philadelphia and Boston with the groundbreaking fusion band Return to Forever to consider. While clinics and big band performances planned for Australia this month had to be scrapped, Coffin seems to have life as a three band man in order.

“It turned into a crazy summer all of a sudden,” Coffin said. “In other words, I got called on a Monday and was playing with the Dave Matthews Band on a Tuesday night. The challenge, then, that exists for me is to really be able to jump into their river and serve their music while retaining who I am.

“I’m sure this is strange for them also. LeRoi has been with them since their very beginning.”

Coffin credits trumpeter Rashawn Ross, a touring member of DMB since 2005, for helping ease the adjustment to touring life with the hugely successful jam band.

“He has really been a Godsend, man. He’s such a patient teacher. He has shown me the parts for the songs, helped me sketch stuff out. A lot of times, he will sing me a part and four bars later we’re playing it. I’m really honored to be part of all this.”

The only interruption on the DMB tour will be the Flecktones dates next week with Return to Forever. For Coffin (and especially Fleck), the idea of playing with RTF – keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White – means rubbing shoulders that with strong formative influences that helped shape the saxophonist’s music.

 “All of us in the Flecktones grew up listening to their music,” Coffin said of RTF. “Those guys helped open a lot of doors for us. They opened up musical possibilities that are still being explored today. So this is going to be a thrill, man. Bela is about out of his skin, he’s so excited. He’s like a little kid.”

The Flecktones will release a holiday album called Jingle All the Way before touring South America and Hawaii in November. The band is also scheduled to play the Brown Theatre in Louisville on Dec. 6. (Tickets go on sale Aug. 15.)

Beyond the lands of Matthews and Fleck, though, sits a place called Mutopia. It’s an enticing little paradise with a mix of fusion, bop, world music, modern grooves and pure jazz adventure that defines a musical approach the saxophonist adopts when he sits in the pilot’s seat.

Coffin cut Mutopia in mid December 2006, roughly a week after his Mu’tet  – keyboardist Kofi Burbridge (of the The Derek Trucks Band), bassist Felix Pastorius (son of iconic bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius) and drummer Roy “Futureman” Wooten (Coffin’s longtime Flecktones mate) – introduced the album’s music during a concert at The Dame.

But things do indeed mutate. During the Dame show, One In,One Out was essentially a bop joyride. On Mutopia, the swing gets a modern bounce with turntable turns by Nashville’s Black Cat Sylvester. The results recall the vintage Blue Note albums of soul sax stylist Lou Donaldson, but with a multi-generational groove.

“To me, the record really exemplifies the idea behind the Mu’tet,” Coffin said. “It comes from the word ‘mutation,’ which reflects my belief that music always has to be changing, morphing and mutating to be alive.”

Dave Matthews Band and Willie Nelson perform at 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at Slugger Field, 401 East Main St. in Louisville. $55, $65. Call (859) 281-6644.

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