Jeff Coffin and the Mu'tet – Live! (2011)

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Saxophonist and composer Jeff Coffin, a three-time Grammy winner, traverses a fine line on Live!, a record that feels both timeless and fresh. The beauty is that he and his Mu’Tet don’t stumble into the pitfalls of either concept.

That is to say, Live sounds old without feeling prosaic, and new without feeling too professorial.

Coffin, a member of the Dave Matthews Band since 2008 who previously had a 14-year stint in Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, recorded Live! in Evanston, Illinois and Austin, over a series of dates in 2010-11. His band also features Felix Pastorius (Jaco’s son; he’s played with Cindy Blackman) on bass, Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Trey Anastasio, Susan Tedeschi) on drums, Kofi Burbridge (Derek Trucks Band, Herbie Hancock) on keyboards and flute, Bill Fanning (Fleck, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Maria Schneider) on trumpet and newcomer Mike Seal on guitar.

They open with a plucky little funk aside called “Tag,” then get a little spaced-out on “Al’s Greens.” Elsewhere on Disc 1, with the closing “Turiya,” the band is more adventurous, even atonal. It seems to me, though, that they completely come into their own with the initial side’s third track: “The Evil Boweevil” eases into a serpentine mood behind Burbridge’s trickling electric pianos asides, before the Mu’Tet hits a soul-lifting signature on the horns. Burbridge, in a move straight out of the wide-lapelled 1970s, then switches to flute, turning “Boweevil” even deeper into shag-carpeted bliss. Yet the track sounds nothing like a scratchy old Blue Note side, thanks to its captivatingly complex rhythm: Sipe, bashing happily away, keep things from falling into reverie. His playing is as propulsive as it is inventive.

By the time the Mu’Tet bursts out with “The Mad Hatter Rides Again,” the fleet opening cut on Disc 2, they are simply smoking — yet, for all of that stuttering aggression, there’s this vivid precision. Coffin performs with a compressed fury, while the rhythm section spars behind him like well-trained prize fighters. Every punch lands. As Live!, released on Coffin’s Ear Up Records, unfolds — through the visceral swing of “Move Your Rug”; past the intriguing Coffin-Pastorius collaboration “L’Esperance,” a quietly effective, sinewy ride; and over to the rhythmic embrace of “Tall and Lanky,” Disc 2’s closer — the Mu’tet adroitly balances elements both contemporary and classic.

Live!, a deft organization of sounds (some swinging, some noisy), doesn’t find conflict between the tangy joys of grooving and the sheer intrigue of experimentation. Why not, Jeff Coffin and the Mu’Tet assert, simply do both?

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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