Jeff Coffin, saxophonist extraordinaire, best known as a member of Dave Matthews Band and three-time Grammy Award-winner with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones is, without a doubt, one of the hardest working musicians in the biz. In between his grueling touring schedule with DMB, working as a music educator, running his own label (Ear Up Records), and even writing a children’s book (The Rabbit, The Carrot, The Crow, & The Quarry), he still managed to find time to squeeze CleveRock in for a phone call in advance of his upcoming shows in Columbus and Cincinnati this coming weekend.
He will be performing with Viktor Krauss and Jordan Perlson while also being joined onstage by special guest Leo Genovese in Columbus at Natalie’s Grandview on Friday, February 17, and in Cincinnati, on Saturday, February 18 at Caffè Vivace.
Before jumping into the details on his group and his upcoming shows, congratulations were in order for Coffin for the Grammy nomination he received for his 2022 release, ‘Between Dreaming and Joy.’ Yes, he’s “been there, done that” thrice with the Flecktones, but this time, the music is all his. Jeff was asked if this nomination means more to him because of that.
“In a different way, I would say so, yes. It was my first personal project that was nominated. It was for Contemporary Instrumental Record. I think that those recordings have a lot to do with the material that is presented compositionally and kind of the vision for the record. I felt really good about that. That was all my doing, writing-wise, with the exception of one tune which was a co-write,” he said. “I was really pleased with that. I was really honored. I have my own record label, a small label, and I was going up against some very heavy hitters with a lot of ‘UMMPH’ behind what they do and, you know, the Grammy went to Snarky Puppy. They are great friends, I love those guys dearly. I was really happy for them. But, you know, to be in that company, man, was really something for me.”
As for his upcoming shows, Coffin was asked how he linked up with his current tourmates and what inspired them to start writing and playing music together.
“There was a gig that I was playing and the bass player had had to sub it out so I got Viktor and it just worked immediately! We started writing tunes together and working on stuff. They were my pod during the lockdown. We’ve recorded and have a record coming out later this year,” Coffin said. “We did some touring a few months back and I have really loved Leo’s playing for a long time, so we invited him to join us on the last tour and he’s coming out again on this one with us, also. The beauty of the trio, to me, is that we can augment it by adding a guitar or another horn player or whatever. We can do that and still retain the trio and the music that we’ve made together, which is really, really beautiful.”
Coffin was asked what fans coming out to see this ensemble can expect at a show:
“There’s going to be a lot of improvisations! You know, the music that we’ve written is really beautiful. It’s kind of all over the place. Some of it is really open; some of it is super funky. There’s a lot of transparency in the music to me. It’s hard to say exactly what it is because obviously, it’s original music,” he explained. “Viktor Krauss is a brilliant bass player. He’s got a beautiful, huge tone and, you know, the group can kind of go anywhere, and it will! It will be from in to out, then back to in again, and a lot of three-dimensionality to it. It’s just beautiful, man. I think that people are going to be really surprised and shocked by the music. Anybody that hears the group, ever since we started doing it, they’ve all been like ‘WOW! I can’t believe how gorgeous this is.’ I would agree.“
In my younger days, I would rarely attend a concert without knowing a good portion of a band’s catalog. This was during the pre-streaming years, meaning I was off to the record store to plop $17 down on a CD so that I could learn the words to the songs and sing along at the shows. As an older, wiser, slightly more mature individual, I find that it’s often a better experience to go into a concert ‘cold.’ (This is especially true for instrumental groups!) I try to NOT familiarize myself with Broadway soundtracks before entering the theater to catch the show for the first time. Life is better without expectations; it usually leads to disappointment.
Jeff was asked if not having any recorded material released yet makes their gigs a more unique experience for the audience.
“I think it does. The reason I say that is I feel if people come in without expectations that kind of gives them kind of a clean slate, you know? When people come to a Dave Matthews concert, they are coming in with a certain expectations. They want to hear certain tunes. I get it,” he answered. “If I may so myself, four really great musicians, playing music that they haven’t heard before, I think that’s really exciting. There is going to be a lot of surprises in this music.”
For this talented group of musicians, it would be a shame if this were a one-and-done endeavor. Coffin states that won’t be the case.
“We have not released anything yet but we are definitely going to do that,” he revealed. “We have a full record that’s done with a video that we will be releasing later this year.”
In addition to being a top-notch musician, Coffin is, in this interviewer’s opinion, one of the unsung heroes of the world as a music educator. He teaches at the prestigious Vanderbilt University in Nashville. With three Grammy Awards to his name and 14+ years of touring with Dave Matthews Band, it is inevitable that some of his students will be big fans.
“I try to get past that really quickly. I don’t want it to be any kind of impediment. I want to be an inspiration to them,” he said. “I try to break down that wall very, very quickly, but yes, some of them are. There’s a student of mine that I have write material all of the time, and one of them wrote a contrafact based off of the new single. They don’t make a big deal out of it. I certainly don’t make a big deal out of it. I’m their teacher. I just happen to play in a band that they like. We don’t give it much thought. That’s the way I like it because I need to be able to reach them in a way that is not on an inaccessible level.“
As an educator, Coffin knows the importance of music education and the impact it can have on anyone. This interviewer’s ability to learn and grow as a human being was heavily shaped by taking piano and trumpet lessons during the ever-important formative years. Coffin was asked to describe why a sound music education is important.
“I think it’s a big part of the overall education of being a human being. I think that it teaches a lot of life skills, from problem-solving to maybe the most important thing, which to me, is listening. I think if we were all better listeners, the world would be a much better place,” he said. “Those are things that we work on; understanding harmony and relationships within music is really important…How things go together. Dynamics is the emotional component of music. How to articulate something, and I just don’t mean staccato or marcato, sometimes it’s more the clarity of an idea or a thought, how to be an articulate person and get an idea across. Confidence, self-confidence, self-drive, dedication, and passion, there are so many aspects of music education that are a big part of just being a human being in the world. A lot of my students at Vanderbilt are not music majors. 48% of the big band are not music majors, but they recognize the importance of having music in their lives as a part of an overall education, you know? So, yeah, I think that it’s indispensable, quite honestly.
The reality is that music education is a casualty of budget cuts in many school districts, especially in low-income communities. It’s sad. Students are being deprived of all of the benefits that Coffin outlined above.
“It’s appalling that so many places are doing away with music programs before they are doing with sports programs because I think that the longevity of music in our lives far surpasses the longevity of somebody playing football, for example,” Coffin stated. “I think that what music brings us in our lives, is far more important, in my opinion, than what sports bring to our lives. Somebody can have a 60-year career in music but nobody can have a 60-year career in sports.”
He’s not wrong. Legendary musician Willie Nelson is playing a concert to celebrate his 90th birthday. Can anyone name an athlete that has had a 70-year career?
As a die-hard Dave Matthews Band and a resident of the same city where the Rock and Roll of Fame Museum resides, I had to ask Jeff if he feels that the museum snubbed DMB after the group won the van vote in 2020 and has been looked over for a nomination every year since then.
“It doesn’t really matter too much to me. I can’t really speak for anybody else,” Coffin said. “I will say, I feel that this band absolutely deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 33 years and were still playing to 15-20 thousand people per night. We’re still making great music and grinding every summer. It’s an incredible group of musicians and, yeah, I do think that this group should be in.“
Between all of his live gigs, time spent in the studio, his teaching endeavors, and running a record label, I questioned Coffin on if he ever had an opportunity to sleep.
“I just have a lot of stuff to do. That’s kind of how I look at it. I have a lot of stuff that I’m in the middle of and I’m trying to get done and, you know, honestly, it’s tough. It’s really tough,” he said. “I’ve got a thousand things going on at once and between all of that and teaching, there’s that, and, all of the writing that I’m doing…I’ve got six records in the can right now. It’s a lot.”