The "hardest working man in show business" label is often thrown around haphazardly. It was a title for James Brown, but it's also been used to describe countless musicians who make their way into a variety of bands and other projects and never seem to sleep a wink. Warren Haynes is one example that comes quickly to mind for his efforts with The Dead, Gov't Mule and The Allman Brothers Band. No matter who else may be on that list, you should probably add Jeff Coffin's name somewhere at the top.
The saxophone player established solid footing in the music industry thanks to his work as one of the Flecktones with Bela Fleck. Most recently, he became a member of the Dave Matthews Band as the replacement for LeRoi Moore who was killed after an ATV accident.
"It's a challenge," Coffin says from his Tennessee home of his new job. "I think that I've probably worked harder at sort of jumping into that scene than I've worked on anything. There's a lot of music over 18 years and a lot of people know that music. There's more than one side to the challenge. I've known those guys for a long time -- probably around 10 years. I just try to make as few waves as possible. It's a horrible thing that happened."
He notes that his "main priority these days" is playing with DMB, though he still finds time for his old band. "I'll do all of December with the Flecktones," Coffin says. "As a Flecktone, we haven't been working much in the last couple of years. It's pretty much been just a couple of months out of the year. If I can do some stuff with them, then I will, but I have to take scheduling conflicts into consideration. I can't expect them to hold back what they're doing because I'm doing something different."
He's also a teacher who holds clinics about music fundamentals around the world and a photographer by hobby, not to mention that he has his own band, Mu'Tet, that's heading out on tour this month. Though Coffin is not one for labels, it's plain to see that his group has a deeper foundation in jazz, though it does "mutate." He's released a five albums under his name, though the Mu'Tet lineup has been changed over the years. Currently, he has Jeff Sipe (Leftover Salmon/Aquarium Rescue Unit) on drums, Felix Pastorius (son of Jaco) on bass, Bobby Lee Rogers (The Code Talkers) on guitar and Bill Fanning (has performed with Springsteen, Sheryl Crowe, John Fogerty, Bruce Hornsby and more) on trumpet. Kofi Burbridge will tour with them early next year.
"Right now, it's all stuff that I've written," Coffin says. "I've been composing stuff for a long time and it's something that I really love. It gives me a chance to explore the way I hear music. When you're playing other people's music -- to me, part of that is to serve the music and give someone what they're looking for. There are parts that someone else wrote and I have to memorize and play. What I write is all over the place -- funky/boogaloo to Arabic and Indian influences, elements of reggae, funk, R&B, pop, folk, jazz."
Because all of his music is instrumental, Coffin feels the songs have to be built around melodies. He adds that a lot of his music also incorporates the spirit of improvisation, which is evident in the other groups he performs and has recorded with, more than the genre that it's done in. He notes that the word "improvisation" is based in Latin and means "surprise" or "unexpected," without necessary ties to music.
"I want to be surprised or almost shocked by what I'm hearing," Coffin says of his own music and that which he listens to. "It's about having landmarks that are familiar to keep the players on stage tied together, but also to draw in the listener. At the end of the day, we're all listeners -- even the people on stage. I want to have the same experience as the people in the audience."
It's almost that Coffin has to be restrained within boundaries to fit into different genres when performing with other groups, while with Mu'Tet, he gets to let go and see where the music takes him. "I don't feel any limitations with those other groups, but it's about serving the music," he says. "I try to retain who I am, but try to find something unique. It doesn't matter how much time I have to play, but that I'm constantly listening to try and create something that is unique, sounds good and fits the style of music that I'm playing and has a particular energy and motion to it. I also have to think about my tone and the shape and space of a solo."
He says that he can find weaknesses in his performances when he tries to do much, but also knows that he has strengths to build off of, as well. With Dave Matthews, he has often been allowed to jam and trade off with Tim Reynolds while Matthews sits back and enjoys the ride with the audience.
"If you're listening, chances are pretty good that you're going to be OK," Coffin says of his performing style. "It's when you're not listening that things get difficult. I would say that about wherever you are in life. When you stop listening, there's trouble ahead."
Jeff Coffin Mu'Tet will perform a non-smoking show at the Double Door Inn on Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.