It was easily the high point of Mitch Rutman’s musical career. The Knoxville-based guitar player was leading his five-piece band through a blazing set under the big tent at the Troo Music Stage at the country’s preeminent music festival, Bonnaroo, at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon; the audience was amped and buzzing, hundreds strong, and included Bonnaroo VIPs like Bela Fleck’s Flecktones and members of Umphrey’s McGee; Flecktone saxophonist Jeff Coffin had even joined him onstage for three songs, supercharging the already considerable electricity of the performance to levels the skies themselves would seem scarcely able to contain, much less this relatively frail canvas awning.
It was in the midst of all this, during the showcase moment of one of his best songs—“PBRs Rule,” a prog-ish fusion jam that, at least on record, features his most impressive guitar solo—at the biggest show of his life, that Mitch Rutman forgot to step out.
“He forgot to solo!” Coffin cackles, recalling the moment during a recent visit to Knoxville, for a performance with the Yonrico Scott Band at the World Grotto on Market Square. “He’s just standing there playing rhythm, smiling really big, looking around, and all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Oh shit!’”
“It was a Miles Davis thing,” Rutman says, his half-hearted defense belied by a sheepish smile. “It was an ‘artistic choice.’ I was just leaving open space.”
One missed solo cue didn’t matter much in the scheme of things; the experience playing Bonnaroo was transforming for Rutman and his band. “I couldn’t be happier with the response we got; it was overwhelmingly good,” Rutman enthuses. “I’m still on a high. We were so ‘on’ that day. Everyone in the band absorbed three days of music, and just let it out.”
But the moment was telling, in that Rutman’s emergence as a bandleader—his figurative stepping out as a musician who plays his own music under his own name—was also a long time coming. By Rutman’s own telling, it didn’t begin in earnest until late last year, when Coffin pushed him to turn the demo recordings he’d recently made with his band into a full-fledged independent release. Coffin’s belief in the material was such that he went on to produce and play horns on the resulting CD, simply titled Mitch Rutman Group , which came out early this year.
“I’m a bit of a snob about the music I like,” says Coffin, a jovial, engaging fellow in his 30s with a shaved head and a braided goatee. “But when something hits me, it really hits me. With Mitch’s stuff, it really hit me the first time through.”
How Rutman got to the point where he had one of the hottest horn players in contemporary fusion sitting in his home and drinking his beer and falling in love with his music in the wee hours of the morning is a whole other story, one that begins with the formal music education he received at Five Towns College of Music in his home state of New York.
After Five Towns, he attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he received a degree in Jazz Composition, and then moved to Nashville to work as a studio musician. He was a young man with loads of talent, and an overabundance of formal training, yet all of his musical endeavors were in service of someone else’s creative muse.
“I’ve always had something musical going on, on the side,” Rutman says. “A lot of solo guitar stuff, a couple of bands here and there. But I never had my own band that featured my own songs.”
Rutman moved to Knoxville, in 1991, because of a relationship with a girl. He says he eventually fell out of love with the girl, but fell in love with the town, and settled into a job with the locally-based Dega Catering, a company that provides food service to a host of big-name traveling musicians. One of the musicians Dega regularly serviced was jam-band superstar Dave Matthews.
“When you go on tour with people, you become like family; you hang out together,” Rutman says. “So I was hanging out with Dave one day, and he handed me his guitar. He liked what I played. He said, ‘Shit, Mitch, I knew you played guitar, but I didn’t know you played guitar . You should sit in with the band one night.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, Dave, I should. I’m really good.’” Rutman continues laughing. “Which is the kind of thing I never, never say, because I don’t ever like to seem cocky. But who wants to pass up an opportunity like that?”
One day a few weeks later, Matthews invited him to sit in for a song at the evening’s performance. It was round about 1997, when the Dave Matthews Band’s fame was exploding outside boundaries of genre and geography, transforming the outfit from a jam-band phenom to an international pop success. Was Rutman familiar with the DMB song “Crush”? Rutman lied and said yes—it was a lie he quickly set right by disappearing for a few minutes into the tour bus with his guitar and a walkman.
“I learned the song, went back to work, got up on stage that evening and played for 27,000 people, then I got off stage and finished making sandwiches for the truck drivers,” Rutman remembers with a smile. “That became a thing. Very randomly, Dave would say ‘Do you want to sit in tonight?’ And if I didn’t know the song, I’d learn it that day.”
That happened several times over several tours—Rutman even made it onto a DMB recording, on one track of the band’s Live in Chicago CD. He remembers that his appearances on stage were always exhilarating, but also gave him perspective on what was missing from his own musical life. “I was always playing other people’s music,” he says. “It came to a point where I said, ‘I’m a musician, a songwriter, and I’m not playing my own music. And if I want to play my own music, I can’t be on the road with someone else nine months out of the year.’”
That was 2001. Soon after, Rutman took himself off the road (he’s now a site coordinator with Dega, a job that requires only brief, occasional trips out of town). He dusted off the sheet music to a handful of songs he’d written over the years and recruited a handful of stellar local musicians, including keyboardist Ben Maney, bassist Vince Ilagan, drummer Chad Melton, and percussionist Jon Whitlock.
But somehow, the pieces wouldn’t quite fall into place. “I hadn’t tapped into a direction I wanted to go yet,” Rutman says. “We knew we had good songs, and talented musicians, but it all hadn’t come together. So we disbanded for a while.”
The breakup lasted for about a year. “I think we got to a point where we all agreed we missed playing together, and we missed playing the material,” Rutman says. “When we put the band back together, there was 10 times the energy we had before. It finally came together.”
Rutman first met Jeff Coffin years earlier, on a tour that featured Bela Fleck and the Flecktones opening for DMB. When he called Rutman in 2005, looking for place to sleep in Knoxville on a roadtrip layover, Rutman was finishing a demo of five Mitch Rutman Group songs, mostly as an audio calling card for club owners who wanted a sample of the band’s music before booking a show.
“We (he and Coffin) ended up hanging out at my house, drinking beers, talking late one night, and he said, ‘Let me hear some of your stuff,’” Rutman remembers. “His first response when I played it was, ‘You wrote this?’”
“I was surprised he was that good of a writer,” Coffin admits. “The melodies were great, the composition was really good, and the playing had a great energy. I looked at him and said, ‘Why are you just doing a demo?’”
With Rutman’s blessing, he took the recordings to his home in Nashville, where he overdubbed horn parts, settled the arrangements, and had the final tapes mixed and mastered. He also recorded a sixth song he co-wrote with Rutman, “Peace in Quiet,” a low-key ballad for which Coffin recruited Felix Pastorius (son of the late jazz bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius) to play fretless bass.
The resulting CD is as good as anything you’ll hear in contemporary jazz-rock, full of top-notch performances—check out Rutman’s epic outre -blues lead on the aforementioned “PBRs Rule,” Maney’s brilliantly unhinged keyboard breaks on “Dizziness” or “Unexplained Moisture,” or any one of Coffin’s dazzling but tasteful flute and horn overdubs—and strong songs reminiscent of the best fusion records of the 1970s.
Rutman credits the CD for helping land this year’s Bonnaroo gig. “We got this CD to AC Entertainment, and they apparently liked what they heard,” Rutman says. “It helped us to establish ourselves. In many ways, I feel like the band really started in January, when the CD came out.”
Why it took this long—nearly two decades after college, 15 years after he came to Tennessee, and five since he put together the first incarnation of MRG—is still a matter of speculation. Says Coffin, “I think Mitch probably needed people who were already playing music to step forward and say, ‘Hey, this is good; you should do it.’”
Nonetheless, Rutman posits that, “There was no lack of confidence. I’ve always felt like I was writing good material; it’s just that the opportunity and the timing had never presented themselves. There was always something else preventing me from digging in with my own project.”
Rutman stops, breathes in a moment, as if to measure the content of truth in his own rationalization. “But it’s true that since the opportunity and the timing didn’t seem to be coming together, I did have to end up making it happen myself.”
He remembered, perhaps, that some solos aren’t played on cue.