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Originals or standards, spirit drives saxophonist Jeff Coffin

September 28, 2018

When it comes to cities known for jazz music, New Orleans is a given.

New York and Los Angeles, sure; they’re crawling with jazz musicians too.

But Nashville?

Yes, says saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who, when not touring with Dave Matthews Band or, previously, with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, has called Nashville home since 1991.

Helping the scene along are jazz studies programs at Middle Tennessee State University, Belmont University and Vanderbilt University, where Coffin has taught for the past four years.

“We’re trying to give these students as many opportunities as possible to play and to create,” he said. “What I’ve found is that when the city really started to grow, that students started staying … They were like ‘This is a scene here.’ We have young students now that are staying and really cultivating the music.”

Nashville is, as Coffin puts it, “a diverse gumbo” of different styles of music, which the jazz scene, and especially the improvisational aspect of jazz, reflects.

Coffin is no stranger to improvisation, using it as the basis of his most recent release “Shout It Out! Spirit Music.”

The record, which was recorded live at the Nashville Jazz Workshop in 2016 and was released Sept. 3 on Coffin’s own Ear Up Records, is a not-so-standard take on jazz standards such as Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

At the Nashville Jazz Workshop, Coffin, joined by friends Bill Altvater on piano, Dale Armstrong on drums and Roger Spencer on bass, had a list of tunes to play.

And that was about it.

“We didn’t talk about how we were going to play them,” Coffin said. “We didn’t talk about who would start them. We didn’t talk about the grooves. We didn’t talk about anything. We were like ‘Let’s just explore the music and see what happens.’ ”

Coffin doesn’t usually work with standards (“I want to explore my voice in music, for better or worse,” he said.), but he realized there was a standards-shaped hole in his discography, which includes 15 solo records of original material.

He also wanted to give his students a new way to look at classic jazz songs, calling them part of the foundation necessary to become a strong improvisor.

Ultimately, “Shout It Out! Spirit Music” had the spirit Coffin always looks for in music.

“Not contrived at all and that the potential for disaster is always there,” he said with a laugh.

After playing the Gorge with the Dave Matthews Band over Labor Day weekend, Coffin is returning to Washington for a performance with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra at the Bing Crosby Theater on Saturday.

The day before, he’ll be at Eastern Washington University for a clinic on jazz composition (10 a.m., EWU music building room 248) and a saxophone masterclass (noon, EWU Music Building recital hall). The public is invited to both; general admission to the noon performance is $3-$5 for non-EWU students.

Coffin said audience members can expect to hear many of his originals, which have been arranged for big band.

“It’s original music that you’ve never heard but that sounds really familiar when you’re listening to it,” he said. “The complexity of the music is masked within the familiarity of the melody, even though you’ve never heard the melody before.”

Coffin said his role on stage differs depending on whether he’s playing with the Dave Matthews Band or as a guest soloist, but the energy of live shows is usually similar, all thanks to that spirit he looks for in music.

“Everybody is on the same page and everybody has the same goals … The singular vision that’s driving things forward,” he said. “I like that a lot, going in and working with groups and pushing them forward and getting something out of them that is unique to the situation.”

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