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The New Cool: Jeff Coffin looks to India with Dream Shanti

Ear Up Records album cover design for Dream Shanti
Mixing modern jazz with traditional Indian instruments, Jeff Coffin presents Dream Shanti.

Since the late '90s, Jeff Coffin's skills on saxophones have been well featured with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Dave Matthews Band. Fans of the New Cool love his own group, the Jeff Coffin Mu'tet, and now Coffin shares his love of Indian music with a new modern jazz project he calls Dream Shanti.

With a new album this summer, Music In Our Dreams, Jeff Coffin marries his modern jazz with the iconic sounds of sitar (Indrajit Banerjee) and tabla (Subrata Bhattacharya) in a dreamy combination that began as a jam session in Coffin's home studio. The two virtuosi of indian classical music brought original compositions that mutated into a unique blend that honors their traditions and the free flowing nature of jazz.

Rounding out the group with friends from his other bands, Coffin employs the Dave Matthews rhythm section of bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford. Roy "Futureman" Wooten, his friend from the Flecktones band, adds more percussion and texture. Add Mu'tet pianist Chris Walters throughout with guest percussion from Jordan Perlson and the harmonium of Coffin's wife Ryoko Suzuki to complete this complex melange.

Coffin himself breaks out all of his toys, performing on four saxophones, three flutes and two clarinets. He composed two of the album's seven songs, with three from his Indian collaborators and the remaining two credited to the entire ensemble.

The music seems to float just beyond the reach of genre boundaries, it's more a creation of these specific artists on their chosen instruments performing in a fresh new context than one leader asking others to play their music.

The droning of the sitar and pulsing tabla rhythms make for a dreamy setting throughout, setting the table for melodies to develop and for Coffin to roam with his horns.

Most interesting for New Cool listeners are a pair of tunes hewing closer to the jazz tradition. "Sandhya Deep" opens with groovy electric keys and bass with Coffin's sax erupting with joy. The rhythm develops into a swaying, meditative back and forth that hints at pianist Horace Silver's poppy side.

Solos from Banerjee's sitar and Coffin's soprano sax follow in a loose, improvisational jazz mode. All the time, the tabla keeps the beat pulsing along.

Fully into funk mode, Coffin's tune "Take It to the Bridge" takes up a fat bass groove to propel a saxophone melody that would make Maceo Parker proud. The sound of tabla undergirds the action lightly, until a mid-song breakdown gives the sitar and percussion combination a funky playground for a fresh angle on these traditional instruments. Catch the full tune on The New Cool program this Saturday afternoon.

The group-composed album closer, "Dancing With the Moon," stretches over 11 minutes in a more familiar mood for the band's Indian musicians. The sitar drone is in full effect, while Coffin's saxophone eventually slips into the exotic groove showing great respect for the musical traditions of his bandmates. This song feels more like a jazz musician playing in the indian classical style than the American jazz tradition, and it works well.

By the end of Dream Shanti's new album, Jeff Coffin comes off sounding like a genius. He's created something open-hearted and innovative that's sure to appeal to the open-minded fans of his Mu'tet, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Dave Matthews Band.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.