A couple of weeks ago, saxophonist Jeff Coffin called up two musician friends. His first question to them was simple: How would you like to make a Christmas album? His next question was a little more pressing: Are you free over the next few days?
Coffin, best known for his associations with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones (past) and the Dave Matthews Band (ongoing), was looking to stir up some holiday cheer in a hurry. He convened those fellow players, bassist Matt Wigton and drummer Jordan Perlson, at his home studio in Nashville. They set up in a single room with no headphones, making up their track list and arrangements on the spot.
The resulting album, Sleigh What?!, is available digitally today, through Coffin's Ear Up Records. (It was mastered the day before yesterday.) Among its highlights are a mellow, swinging "White Christmas" and a jaunty, second-line "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
The larger objective, according to Coffin, was: "How can we take these tunes that are standard repertoire, which we basically know all the words to, and do them in a way that's a bit unusual and quirky — a way that harkens to the spirit of mystery but also retains a thread of that tradition?"
"I'll Be Home For Christmas" is a case in point. Coffin always loved the song's melody, which has been recorded countless times since Bing Crosby made it a Top 10 hit in 1943. The trio started out with an arrangement inspired by the multilayered flow of Ornette Coleman's iconic ballad "Lonely Woman." As they fleshed it out further, another reference point emerged: the unique combustion properties of the cooperative post-bop trio Fly.
"So we kind of combined 'Lonely Woman' with some of the conceptual stuff of Fly," Coffin says, "where the bass figure and the drums are grooving together, and the melody floats on top. And I'm thinking about the lyrics all the way through. For a tune like that, it's the only way to go."
Coffin has had a hand in one notable artifact of Christmas past: Béla Fleck & the Flecktones' Jingle All the Way, which won the Grammy for best pop instrumental album in 2009. But in its spare instrumentation and casual, no-fuss approach, Sleigh What?! more closely resembles something like the self-titled 2010 album by Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O. (Coffin and Wilson, a jazz drummer, are mutual admirers and occasional collaborators.)
But Sleigh What?! also captures a specific rapport between three artists working with zero restrictions. Coffin says it couldn't have happened without Perlson and Wigton, who didn't balk at their rush-to-assembly time frame.
"Doing a Christmas album a week-and-a-half before Christmas is a little insane," Coffin allows. "It's kind of a cross between Santa's Workshop and the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop."