Side Up, the latest album from saxophonist Jeff Coffin and his Mu’tet, is an eclectic mix of musical styles, influences and instrumental combinations reflecting the ensemble’s embrace of the idea that stasis—the same old, same old—is poor soil for musical growth. Music thrives when it pushes boundaries. Indeed this is the idea behind the Mu’tet as described on Coffin’s website: “The group’s name stems from the word ‘mutation’, clearly reflecting Coffin’s philosophy that music must continue to change and mutate in order to grow.” Repetition of the status quo is a dead end. There is some sense where this mutation mantra could well be as good a definition of the jazz aesthetic as you’re likely to find.
Coffin, who had played with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones for 13 years before joining with the Dave Matthews Band in 2008, leads a core group made up of award-winning drummer Roy “Futureman” Wooten, bassist Felix Pastorius, trumpeter Bill Fanning and pianist Chris Walters. The core is supplemented on individual tracks by a variety of guest musicians, ranging from Zakir Hussain on the tabla and Ryoko Suzuki on harmonium to James DaSilva on guitar and Roy Agee on trombone. Between the different musical styles and the ever-changing ensembles, listening to Side Up is like listening to something new on each and every track.
The set of 10-tune original compositions opens with a solo piano performance from Coffin on “And So It Begins,” a lovely ballad written for two friends about to be married. It serves as a somewhat muted prelude to what is to come. “Peace Now” (a Coffin, Pastorius, and Walter composition) follows with the core quintet in soul stirring mode. “Low Hanging Fruit” has them changing over to a Latin mode. Later they work with Indian influences in “Mogador” and then an African vibe with “The Scrambler.”
“Steppin’ Up” adds three horns to work on a New Orleans transformation of the changes to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” The New Orleans association comes back with a terrific performance of the funky “Scratch That Itch” and they close the set with a Second Line powerhouse, “Albert’s Blue Sky.”
Call it mutation. Call it fusion. Track after track, just call it great music.
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