One of the finest releases for 2012, I was fortunate enough to grab Jeff Coffin in the middle of a hectic touring schedule to field a few questions for us.
I refer to Into The Air as a delightful bit of "jazz nasty." Soulful, funkalicious grooves, the personification of vibe...In short, I dig it. Can you tell us more about the origin of the record and the creative process behind Into The Air?
J.C. - " Thanks for that. I like the "jazz nasty!" This was a very collaborative recording and writing process and one I have been wanting to do for some time. We have all been playing together in various incarnations for many years and we all know each others playing really well. This batch of tunes has been coming around for a few years now. I had a lot of sketches and things were close to finished that I needed to get done. Felix (Pastorius) and I collaborated on a few of them because I found that he and I write well together. A lot of times, I use ProTools as a compositional tool to work things out so he and I used some drum loops and such to work out the compositions we were working on. It was a great way to get the tunes into a place we could build off in the studio. When we were in the studio, we also all worked on some things that were mostly finished but not 100%. I want everyone to feel they are emotionally invested in the music. By writing together, they are. I also want them to bring their personality and virtuosity to the table. I don't want to hold them back musically and by that I mean I want them to feel free to explore and try whatever they would like to try. I want THEM and their personality to shine through. So, we would work on a couple tunes per day and then record. We would try every idea but that doesn't mean we used every idea we tried. I like to keep it open and I think it allows the musicians to create at their highest level.
As a tenor player myself you make me realize the best place for my horn may well be the wall of our local T.G.I Fridays. You play from a myriad of influence without ever bailing on the "jazz nasty." Who are some of your influences and how have they impacted your work, especially here?
J.C. - "NO NO!Keep it off the wall! Be inspired by music...don't ever let someone's playing discourage you from playing. Not everyone has to make a living playing...and, actually, very few do. The first time I listened to Johnny Griffin, I knew that my path was NOT to play standards! WOW!!!I love all the typical cats like Bird, Trane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Dewey Redman, Hank Mobley, Griffin, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Mike Brecker, but I also really love the playing and vibe of people like King Curtis, Roland Kirk, Jan Gabarek, Maceo Parker Jr. Walker etc...I love Herbie Hancock's music and ALL of Miles Davis work. I like people who look for something a little different on their instruments. I think improvisation should be about a revolution...not a violent revolution but one within ourselves, that we are trying to break free from something. We all have inherent permission to express ourselves, of self expression, and I think that we can find a great outlet through improvisational music. Doesn't matter the genre...follow the spirit not the style!!"
You did a huge run with Bela Fleck and then jumped in to the Dave Matthews Band. As a jazz performer do you think this work was especially helpful for Into The Air and if so then how? You seem to relish in pushing your musical comfort zone and I wish more casual listeners would adopt this philosophy as well. Does it really boil down to taste being subjective for all parties?
J.C. - "I think it makes a difference. I am most influenced by the people I play with. I think one of the main things I learned with the Flecktones is that all music should be "dance music." I would see people dancing to tunes that were in 15/4, 17/8, 11/4 etc...and think holy smokes, it works! So I have tried to take that sensibility and write music that is challenging but that feels good. The most important part for me is that it feels good. The other stuff will fall into place, the strong melody lines and the harmonic structures...but it HAS to feel good. I think the same of the Dave Matthews Band. Carter Beauford is playing some serious drums back there. He's like a modern day Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Billy Cobham all rolled into one guy! It's dance music too. So, it's everywhere. You can dance to Ornette too. It's a different dance but a very important one.
Yes I do try to push my comfort level too. I can't sit still for too long and I can't play the same music the same way night after night. I have to keep it moving and evolving. I wish the music was more like that but it seems to me that sometimes it gets overly complex to try to be hip, and it doesn't work. I need strong melodies and things that feel good. I think there is a lot of great music out there but instrumentally, it seems to be lagging behind the times. I don't want to hear a swing drummer trying to play funk. It just doesn't work if they are not coming from that place. Get a funk drummer if that's the music you want to play. We HAVE to serve the music and that means, to me, to use our influences...ALL of them. Not just from back in the day, but people who are playing now. Questlove from the Roots is an amazing drummer and his pocket is without peer. It's part of the vernacular but I don't hear it very much in instrumental music. "Jazz" music used to be the hippest thing going but it's become a bit of a dinosaur in the sense that it's not keeping up with the times. It is becoming irrelevant. I think we can make great music and in the way we are playing. I want to continue to surround myself with players of like mind and spirit. There are many people who won't like certain things but I am reminded constantly about how important it is to follow your own voice. All the people who have influenced me have cultivated their own voice. Who else can we possibly sound like if not ourselves?"
What is the responsible role of the critic? I have written for several publications that expect a commercially oriented release to be immediately green lighted while pushing the more adventurous Independent artist to the side.
J.C. "I think Ornette Coleman said it best, "All listeners are equal in their opinions." I think the job of all of us is to demand quality. There will always be more commercial music out there but even commercial music can be great if it's of high quality. Bob Dylan is huge and very commercially successful, the Flecktones, DMB, etc...Cream rises to the top and it stays there. Pop culture comes and goes but the good stuff stays around. It's not easy to see it all the time in the midst of it all but I think that our job as musicians and critics alike is to do our homework and to be open to things that are outside our personal comfort zone. We need to continue to be students of the music and of art. It's not always easy to be open to something we don't fully understand. But, it's important that we at least try. Businesses' bottom line is how much money they are going to make. I get it. Our job is to educate the public to the higher level of great art. Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Frank Gehry, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo etc...these are all names that should be in the vernacular of every child in school. We need to expose people to great art for them to even know it's out there. This is a huge issue in my opinion and one that needs to be seriously addressed."
I know I have written a piece well when the artist contacts me later and says, "You got it! You actually listened!" What would the equivalent of that be for you with a listener?
J.C. - "Goosebumps."
I want to thank Jeff Coffin for his time and encourage you to check out Into The Air!