Renowned Saxophonist Jeff Coffin & Acclaimed Cellist Helen Gillet Team For ‘Let it Shine’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Let it Shine, is a surprising, expressive new duo album from renowned saxophonist, composer and educator Jeff Coffin and celebrated cellist, vocalist, and composer Helen Gillet. Together these two multi-instrumentalists, Coffin and Gillet, perform a total of 13 instruments, with Gillet occasionally augmenting the sonic tapestry with the looping of her cello. Additionally, several tracks on Let it Shine features another master musician and longtime Coffin-collaborator Roy ‘Futureman’ Wooten on cajon. This assumes, of course, that most readers are familiar with Coffin for his work with the Dave Matthews Band and his 14-year tenure and three GRAMMY awards with the genre-defying Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  What some may not know is that Coffin has released nearly 20 albums as a bandleader and remains one of the most in-demand saxophonists in the world as well as a first-call studio musician in Nashville, where he has lived since 1991.

Helen Gillet explores the rhythmic and textural nature of the cello in conjunction with synthesized sounds and her haunting alto voice. In keeping with what I just heard one of the great jazz artists, Christian McBride, say this week, “We musicians don’t pay much attention to the term ‘genre’ because music comes at us from so many different directions” this duo lives by that axiom as they meld elements of rock, punk as well as Belgian folk tunes and a distinct New Orleans influence to create unique aural atmospheres.  The duo had performed together only three times before deciding to record this album at Coffin’s studio in Nashville in August 2019.  In preparation for a performance at the Side Bar during NOLA Jazz Fest that same year, Coffin composed five new pieces for woodwinds and cello. Coffin notes “I was intrigued by the sonic possibilities her cello looping and my woodwinds might come up with. I could say that the results exceeded my expectations, but I expected that it would be amazing. I wasn’t wrong. This project is one of my favorite things I have ever done.”  In effect the duo does at least three things here – playing in counterpoint, engaging in improvisation, and creating soundscapes through the merging of the various instruments – many of which are uniquely new.

The album begins with the rubato, contrapuntal sopranos sax/cello rendered “The Sun Never Says”, a piece composed by Coffin with a melody based on the rhythmic inflections and unfolding meaning of a sufi poem by the poet Hafiz. This is immediately followed by a solo cello intro to the dynamic “Lazy Drag Jig, a piece which depicts the fullness of sound that the duo achieves, here with Coffin on three reeds, Gillet on cello and Wooten on cajon.  “Unzen”, composed by Gillet, is a tribute to the great Charles Mingus. The piece begins on a tender note with an improvisation from Coffin on tenor. Gillet joins, supporting Coffin’s lyrical musings, seeming to channel Mingus’ energy in her comping and melodic interplay. 

“Sometimes Springtime” begins on a tranquil note with some cello looping, giving way to a sultry melody doubled between the two players with Coffin also doubling his instruments, soprano sax and bass clarinet. The song features eloquent lyrics composed and performed, in French, by Gillet and it’s the first time we hear her singing. The following track, “Lampsi” features Wooten on the cajon, providing the rhythmic underpinning. Gillet then takes rhythmic experimentation to another level on “Sandman”, as she physically slaps her cello to establish the rhythmic cadence of the song. Underscoring Coffin’s melody across the five different instruments he layers in, Gillet loops a driving cello ostinato that propels the piece forward. The album concludes with a piece by one of Gillet’s cello heroes Ernst Reijseger“Do You Still”, is a deeply evocative composition, delivered here with a deep emotional depth as Coffin uses four different woodwinds.

We have not detailed each, but those are some of the more interesting pieces. Throughout Coffin plays the following – bass flute, alto flute, D whistle, tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet, clarinet, percussion, didgibone, and voice; while Gillet is credited with cello, cello looping, cello slaps, percussion, voice, and lyrics. While the presence of cello inevitably conjures classical music, this doesn’t much resemble that but results in a similar soothing ambience.

Coffin offers: “The uniqueness of sound, the subtleness of timbre, the willingness to explore and create are just a few of the elements on display here. If you feel a fraction of the joy listening to this music that we felt making it, we will have done our job well.” In short, the onset of the pandemic has brought on a slew of albums designed to calm us during these troubled times. This is one of the more interesting ones.


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