When saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined Béla Fleck & the Flecktones in 1997, he righted their ship. That quartet had released three stellar CDs during 1990-1992, but when original keyboardist/harmonica player Howard Levy left, a void was created. The remaining trio of Fleck (banjo), Victor Wooten (bass) and Futureman (drum synthesizer) drifted before Coffin contributed to Grammy-winning comebacks from Outbound (2000) to The Hidden Land (2006).
Like all Flecktones, Coffin is better suited within that ace improvising quartet than on his own, yet two new solo projects point out his versatility. Coffin’s latest self-titled Mu’tet release improves upon his handful of preceding solo CDs, mainly because of his surrounding, interactive cast. Arc of the Circle, with keyboardist Charlie Peacock, is its polar opposite, an improvisational blend of modern classical and ECM-like influences.
On Mutopia, Futureman (Roy Wooten, Victor’s brother) plays acoustic drums throughout, rather than his guitar-shaped electric SynthAxe, and Fleck and Wooten appear on one track each. But it isn’t the Flecktones’ presence that makes Mutopia tick. Fleck’s cameo is on “Bubble Up,” a buoyant number in 7/8 time that’s highlighted by the Hammond organ lines of Kofi Burbridge (who adds piano and flute elsewhere) and Coffin’s two-man horn section with trombonist Roy Agee. On the dreamy “Al’s Greens,” Wooten trades solos with primary bassist Felix Pastorius, the 26-year-old son of late bass great Jaco. Their exchanges are so seamless that it’s difficult to tell them apart-no small feat, considering Wooten’s musical athleticism.
Coffin plays tenor, alto and baritone saxes on the New Orleans-tinged pieces “One In, One Out” and “Move Your Rug.” The saxophonist, who also plays soprano, flute and percussion, must be given additional credit for the coming-out party of Pastorius, the bravest young musician since Ravi Coltrane took up saxophone. Futureman’s dexterity on actual drums, and Burbridge’s all-purpose playing, add to a CD worthy of Flecktones comparisons.
Arc of the Circle merits no such comparisons, but that’s by design. Coffin and Peacock (who plays piano, synthesizer, Wurlitzer and toy piano) completely improvised the basic tracks before Marc Ribot (electric and resonator guitars), Tony Miracle (electronics and laptop computer) and guest players contributed to the derangements. Peacock may be best known as a producer who’s covered a wide spectrum from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to Amy Grant. He uses both grand and toy piano on the opening title track, engaging Coffin’s tenor sax into a game of musical tag.
Ribot and drummer Derrek Phillips contribute heavily to the subsequent, nearly accessible “Rice Dice Mice,” but most of the remaining pieces purposely avoid having a rhythmic anchor. Phillips plays on two other abstract pieces, “Downstairs Room of You” and “Redux: Porky, Boots and Floyd.” The remainder is mostly freeform Peacock and Coffin (on tenor, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and percussion). If your tastes run toward the Flecktones, Mutopia is the choice of these two releases; if you lean toward free jazz and Charles Ives, it’s Arc of the Circle.