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Plenty of musicians load up on all-star and eclectic personnel for what are promoted as genre-smashing albums. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin is among the relative few who actually delivers on a level most people can relate to.
His multi-ensemble, multi-genre Bloom visits Dixie, freeform, world, folk, and other styles, interpreting with an authentic and modern voice instead of merely adding an accent to standard contemporary fusion. Not everything soars all the time, but there's little questioning Coffin's sincerity.
The eight-year Bela Fleck sideman has plenty of world tour experience and projects with artists like Branford Marsalis and Van Morrison to his credit. Earlier albums, including 1999's outstanding Commonality, featured mainsteam settings with Coffin a ferocious and original post-bop lion. On Bloom, his fourth as a leader, he delves full-bore into the "mu'tet" concept, which he says comes from the word "mutation."
A cast of more than thirty musicians performing everything from cellos to turntables does the mix-and-match thing, resulting in Coffin playing observer as much as leader. The album's biggest shortcoming is that his playing is a considerable step below the standards of earlier releases, due to the frequently thick ensembles; his writing and arranging of the twelve originals comprise his biggest contribution here.
The common theme most of the time is fun, or at least an uplifting spirit. "Move Your Rug...Processional" is a brief lively, brassy, contemporary New Orleans warm-up act that transitions into "Better Do Your Thing," a group vocal jam offering the rare opportunity to use the phrase "nimble swinging tuba solo" from Joe Murphy. "Old Jack Craw" is party-worthy slow blues, even if Coffin's double-horn playing is lost behind the guitar and organ-dominated mix.
He mixes the meters of the rhythm and melody sections surprisingly seamlessly on the closing funk of "Wobble," which also features one of his better, if brief, Rollins-like solo passages. The freeform "Hatim" is a performance and compositional highlight, with Fleck, Coffin, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and drummer Jeff Sipe showcasing a background blending, to borrow from Coffin's description, elements of Wayne Shorter and Indonesian Balinese.
Low points, while not bad, tend toward the decidedly average. "The Evil Boweevil" is standard funk/fusion Coffin says the group loves to play liveunderstandable after hearing it on a few concert tapes (see below) where they have room to indulge against the basic groove. "Bloom" is a great concept, featuring a choir of inner city youths studying at a community school for 50 cents a week, but they are heard only twice during the chorus of a 5/4 folk ballad dominated by Tyler Wood's soothing piano solo and Fleck's bluegrass pickings. "Circle Of Wills" is authentic to its Bill Frisell-inspired roots, but rather slow and dreary for this setting.
World fusion fans and those into Fleck's more adventurous offerings are likely to find Bloom engaging; those appreciative of Coffin's verbose mainstream modernism may be more reserved unless they can appreciate the various directions he's reaching into. It's an approach worth continuing, as his versatility is already impressive and can get only improve with further immersion.
Note: A half-dozen live performances between 2001 and 2005 are available online at the Internet Archive.
1. Move. Move Your Rug...Processional (Blues for Otha Turner) 2. Better Do Your Thing 3. Evil Boweevil 4. My Dog Chunks 5. Mad Hatter Rides Again 6. Circle of Wills 7. Hatim 8. Bloom 9. Old Jack Craw 10. As Light Through Leaves 11. Weird Beard 12. Wobble
Jeff Coffin (saxes, flute), Victor Wooten (electric bass), Jeff Sipe (drums), Pat Bergeson (guitar), Bela Fleck
(banjo), DJ Logic (turntables), Chris Thile (mandolin), Futureman (percussion), Kirk Whalum (soprano
sax), Derek Philip Jones (acoustic bass), Tyler Wood (piano, B3organ), Johnny Neel (B3 organ, vocals),
The Big Chief Giampetro Brass Band, The W. O. Smith Community Music School Choir.