June 24, 2008

Summer Symposium Brings Musical Talent to Braden Stage

By Dan Craft, The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.

Jun. 23--Four summers ago, eccentric banjo man Bela Fleck brought himself and his three Flecktones to the stage of the annual Music for All (formerly Bands of America) Symposium at Illinois State University.

In his GO! interview, Fleck described the band as "a collective of weird musicians" known for their "equal opportunity weirdness."

He concluded the interview by adding that people are often surprised "that a band full of guys as weird as we are can actually make a living at it."

What goes around comes around.

Sort of.

For this year's symposium concert series, the star attractions are two out of three weirdos, er, Flecktones.

Which ain't bad.

They are:

--Composer-player Jeff Coffin, he of the distinctive hairless dome, unusual beard and killer sax (two killer saxes, in fact, per his infamous Flecktones stunt of blowing a pair of alto and tenor saxes in tandem).

--And sci-fi percussionist Futureman, known in the present tense as Roy Wooten, brother of the third Flecktone, bassist Victor Wooten.

In keeping with prevailing Flecktones weirdness, Futureman is the celebrated inventor of the Buck Rodgers instrument known as the "drumitar."

The drumitar is the percussion device played via a guitar-shaped instrument slung around the shoulder and trailing cables plugged into banks of computers.

According to Coffin, Futureman will be coming back down to Earth for the concert by driving his rhythms home on a traditional acoustic drum set.

If this isn't moderately confusing enough, headliner Coffin is performing with his group, The Jeff Coffin Mu'tet, of which Futureman isn't, technically speaking, a card-carrying member.

In regard to the Music for All concert in ISU's Braden Auditorium (8 p.m. June 26), Futureman is Coffin's and Mu'tet's "special guest."

The Mu'tet lineup is no small potatoes, by the way, boasting as it does bass player Alana Rocklin, guitarist Mike Seal and trumpeter Rod McGaha -- each of whom is described by Coffin, in reverent tones, as "a very deep musician."

That would seem to the ultimate accolade from a man who seems to run pretty deep himself.

"It's totally different music," begins Coffin, when asked to describe what audiences will hear this summer vs. what they may have heard four summers ago when that "collective of weird musicians" ruled the Braden stage.

Though he's a house composer for Bela and the Flecktones, his compositions for Mu'tet have, per the band's exotic name, mutated into something even he has a hard time putting his finger on.

Mu'tet won't be found in any dictionary, English or otherwise. It was coined by Coffin to describe why his music is in a constant state of flux and growth, and why the musicians he performs with can come and go and go and come.

If pressed, he will suggest that his work with Bela & Co. is "a little bit more technical and rhythmic," while his compositions for Mu'tet are "a little bit more melody-driven in some ways."

He adds, somewhat paradoxically, "the complexity of my music (for Mu'tet) comes from the simplicity of my music."

He continues, "The melody really dictates for me where the tune is going, which may mean there is some weird time signature that results, not because I want to write in a weird tempo, but because that's the way it happens."

Coffin's musical ascendancy began with his Flecktones association back in the '90s.

A starving musician who was making ends meet by running a jam session in town (Nashville) "because there was no place or forum for me and other musicians to play the stuff we loved. It was one of those gigs where you make 15 bucks and free coffee, but it was a great place to play, and we were all into playing."

One of those musicians who picked up his 15 bucks and java was a drummer friend of Bela Fleck, who hooked him up with the eccentric banjo player noted for fusing jazz, bluegrass, pop country and other sounds into something that somebody dubbed "blu-bop."

Recalls Coffin, "there was a kind of link between us right from the beginning, and we met and did a little playing, and he said 'would you like to do a couple gigs?,' and basically we've been doing gigs ever since."

As with all the members of the Flecktones, Coffin has been given his musical freedom, an odyssey that has sent him not only in the more melodic direction of Mu'tet, but also into studio sessions with the likes of Dave Matthews, Bruce Hornsby, Don Henley, the Dixie Chicks, Branford Marsalis, Van Morrison, Garth Brooks, Phish, Chic Corea and dozens more.

These days, though, Coffin isn't as keen on the studio session scene, despite the luster of some of the players he's accompanied and/or collaborated with.

"My vision of music is a little different," he says. "Mine is that it's not supposed to be perfect, but it is supposed to have life and spirit and movement; it's not about the perfection of the moment."

As a result, he says he feels like a bit of a "fish out of water" on the Nashville studio scene he has inhabited for a number of years.

The life and spirit and movement Coffin aspires to is something "you don't always get in the studio, where things are dumbed down to cater to popular tastes. That doesn't really interest me anymore. "

Forward motion, that's his thing.

"It's like when you see a tumbleweed on the prairie being blown along," he says. "It's not always moving at the same pace, but it is moving. That's what music means to me: a continuous movement toward something."


Music for us, too

Following is the complete evening concert schedule for the 2008 Music for All Summer Symposium at Illinois State University. Though the symposium itself is for students' and teachers' ears only, the evening concerts are open to all.

--Monday: Yamaha Young Performing Artists (8 p.m., Braden Auditorium), a showcase of young musicians selected by an international panel of professional musicians. Admission is free.

--Tuesday: United States Army Field Band (8 p.m., Braden Auditorium), the premier touring musical representative for the U.S. Army. Admission is free, but tickets must be reserved by calling (317) 636-2263.

--Wednesday: Barrage (8 p.m., Braden Auditorium), the high-octane fiddle-fest from Canada sporting an international cast of young string players who not only have to be able to play like virtuosos but also sing and dance simultaneously. Tickets are $22 at the Braden box office and area Ticketmaster outlets.

--June 26: The Jeff Coffin Mu'tet with Futureman (8 p.m., Braden Auditorium), see accompanying interview. Tickets are $22 at the Braden box office and area Ticketmaster outlets.

--June 27: DCI Central Illinois Summer Music Games (7 p.m., Hancock Stadium, $20), the popular competition among drum corps from around the country. Scheduled for this year are The Cavaliers from Rosemont; Carolina Crown, Fort Mill, S.C.; Phantom Regiment, Rockford; The Bluecoats, Canton, Ohio; Spirit, Jacksonville, Ala.; The Glassmen, Toledo, Ohio; The Colts, Dubuque, Iowa; and The Madison Scouts, Madison, Wis. Tickets are $20, and are available on-line at or by calling (800) 495-7469.


A symposium by any other name

By Dan Craft |

Old habits may die hard, but old names sometimes die even harder.

In fact, they occasionally crawl back out of the grave to torment us, like George Romero zombies.

Take the case of the Music for All Summer Symposium, which arrives Monday for a six-day stand on the Illinois State University campus.

Oh, you mean the Bands of America Summer Symposium, right?

No, we don't, despite our better instinct to do so.

But that instinct is not unfounded.

After its creation 33 years ago, Bands of America decided to move its annual June music symposium to the campus of Illinois State University.

For the next 14 years, the BOA name and logo became part of the Twin Cities' rites of summer.

The symposium's evening concert series in Braden Auditorium, to which the public was invited, didn't hurt matters any.

Especially with names like Maynard Ferguson, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Dave Koz and others to tempt us.

Also a popular component of the symposium was the DCI Central Illinois Summer Music Games event held in Hancock Stadium on Friday night.

As of a year ago, however, the BOA name and logo became history -- sort of -- and was succeeded by the Music for All moniker.

That was the name used last summer in all references to the concerts and events.

Even so, the temptation still lingers to invoke Bands of America when referring to the symposium, which convenes Monday and continues through June 28.

The reason for the brand name shift can be traced to the September 2006 merger of two non-profit organizations, Bands of America Inc., and the Music for All Foundation.

"We took the name and re-branded the parent organization as Music for All Inc.," said spokeswoman Debbie Laferty Asbill at the time. "We then re-branded some of our events as Music for All events if their programming extended beyond bands. Since the summer symposium includes bands and orchestra divisions, we renamed the event the Music for All Summer Symposium."

Asbill added that the Bands of America moniker still exists as a division within Music for All.

But thanks to the re-branding, we aren't seeing it applied to any of the activities here in Bloomington-Normal.

What we will see, per tradition, is the ISU campus invaded by around 1,600 students and 400 educators, all poised to partake of what the symposium has to offer.

Per its official billing, that would be: "A week of creating and providing positive, life-changing experiences through music for students and teachers."


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