Remembering Charnett Moffett

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Charnett Moffett’s smile was an ever-present part of his ebullient persona both on and off the bandstand.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

I can still recall the image of a young Charnett Moffett, beaming from the other side of the glass in Manhattan’s Songshop Studio while laying down tracks on guitarist Stanley Jordan’s Blue Note debut, Magic Touch. It was September 1984. Charnett had turned 17 just three months earlier. And yet, having already put in time on the road with Wynton Marsalis’ quintet since December 1983 (replacing veteran bassist Ray Drummond in the lineup), he seemed savvy beyond his years; an old soul in a young man’s body.

He had a sweet smile then, and over the course of the next four decades, Moffett never lost that smile. It was an ever-present part of his ebullient persona both on and off the bandstand. Those kind of good, positive vibes he exuded came as naturally to Charnett as his preternatural abilities on his chosen instrument. And in his heart of hearts, he felt he was on a mission. As he told Bass Player magazine in a December 2021 interview: “The plan is to keep putting music out into the universe that has good vibrations, and hopefully people will enjoy that music, and its reverberations will spread some light in these difficult times.”

Just four months after that interview was published, Moffett was gone at age 54. Charnett died on April 11 of a heart attack, which his wife, the singer-guitarist-composer, frequent collaborator as well as founder and president of Motéma Records, Jana Herzen, suspected was due to complications from the painful Trigeminal Neuralgia condition he had been struggling with for the past few years.

The youngest son of drummer Charles Moffett, a member of Ornette Coleman’s 1965 trio with bassist David Izenzon that recorded the live two-volume set At The Golden Circle Stockholm on Blue Note, Charnett Moffett was born June 10, 1967, in New York (his name is a contraction of the first syllable of his father’s first name and the last syllable of Coleman’s first name). He began touring internationally with The Moffett Family Band in 1974 at the age of 7 alongside siblings Codaryl, Charisse and Charles Jr., eventually touring the Far East in 1975. Charnett later attended LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts before studying at Mannes College of Music and later at Juilliard. But perhaps his greatest learning experience came on the bandstand with Wynton Marsalis, who hired the precociously talented bassist at age 16 in 1983. Charnett played on Branford Marsalis’ 1984 recording debut, Scenes In The City, and subsequently appeared on brother Wynton’s influential, Grammy-winning 1985 album Black Codes (From The Underground). Two years later, he became a member of Tony Williams’ hard-bopping acoustic quintet (with pianist Mulgrew Miller, saxophonist Billy Pierce and trumpeter Wallace Roney), appearing on 1987’s Civilization and 1988’s Angel Street.

Moffett’s 1987 debut, Net Man, produced by Kenny Kirkland and featuring a guest appearance from tenor sax titan Michael Brecker, found him playing primarily upright bass, which the exception of one cut, his original “One Left Over,” which featured him doubling on acoustic and electric piccolo bass guitar. His 1989 followup for Blue Note, Beauty Within, had him introducing more electric bass guitar into the mix on tunes like “Dancing With Love” and the lovely ballad “Angela,” named for his first wife. With 1991’s Nettwork, on the Blue Note subsidiary label Manhattan Records, Charnett overdubbed electric piccolo bass guitar as his main voice on top of funky electric bass guitar undercurrents, reserving only one track (“Truth”) for upright acoustic bass. That same year he also played on the Bill Laswell-produced Ask The Ages (Axiom Records), which had him digging deep alongside such free-blowing icons as Sonny Sharrock, Pharaoh Sanders and Elvin Jones. That volcanic album made many critics’ year-end Top Ten lists for 1991.

Moffett’s 1994 release on Evidence, Planet Home, was an ambitious trio outing with former Jazz Messengers pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Victor Lewis, his mid-‘80s bandmate in the Manhattan Jazz Quintet. Charnett alternated between acoustic and electric basses here, showcasing his formidable arco and pizzicato chops on the upright on three unaccompanied pieces (“Aura,” “Free Your Mind,” “Touch Tone”) while carrying the melody on “Brothers & Sisters” and the title track on piccolo electric bass guitar and singing on the fretless electric bass on “Peace Within The Struggle” in the spirit of his major role models Jaco Pastorius and Alphonso Johnson. He also experimented with distortion pedal on the upright bass for a raucous, Hendrixian interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As he said to me at the time for the liner notes: “I kind of got pigeonholed as this ‘jazz bass player,’ and the reality is that I wasn’t playing standards and tunes as a kid, I was listening to everything that I could hear and reflecting that in some way in my playing. Ellington was in the household through my father’s record collection but it wasn’t the most prominent thing for me. There was also a lot of avant garde music and funk. So you get close to the early influences in life and try to find a balance with all the new information that you have obtained through a period of living … and try to fuse it together in a positive light.”

After playing on two Ornette Coleman Sound Museum recordings in 1996, Hidden Man and Three Women, he released 1997’s Still Life, a potent trio album with pianist Rachel Z and drummer Cindy Blackman that further revealed his debt to Pastorius (particularly on “Journey,” the title track and an instrumental version of Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World”) and to Jimi Hendrix (on the distortion-laced, unaccompanied upright bass number “Funky Blues”). A decided Ornette influence also came across on “Scrambled Eggs,” while the solo bass showcase “Spiritual Bubbles” highlighted his virtuosic bowing technique.

Other significant collaborations during this period included appearances on a string of Kenny Garrett albums (1992’s Black Hope, 1995’s Trilogy, 2002’s Happy People, 2003’s Standard Of Language) and two by McCoy Tyner (2003’s Land Of Giants and 2007’s Afro Blue). In 2007, Moffett toured Europe as part of Ornette Coleman’s three-bass band (alonside Tony Falanga and Al McDowell). I saw him backstage after their performance at the Palau de Musica in Barcelona that year and was greeted by that same beaming smile I remembered seeing from Charnett at that Stanley Jordan session I had attended back in 1985.

On his 2009 Motéma debut, The Art Of Improvisation, Moffett joined drummers Will Calhoun, Eric McPherson and his 20-year-old son Max in a set of music that was typically intense and fiercely uncompromising. He incorporated wah-wah pedal with his stunning arco work on “The Story” as well as on the raga-flavored jam with Calhoun, “Call For Peace,” his ethereal duet with Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo, and his Hendrixian reprise of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As he said at the time, “People think I’m playing the anthem for political reasons, but I just like the song. It’s become my own personal standard and I’m always trying to figure out how many different ways I can interpret it.”

He followed with a string of outings on Motéma, including 2010’s Treasure, which had him exploring a world music muse in the company of bass clarinetist Oran Etkin, sitarist Anjana Roy, Kugo harpist Tomoko Sugawara and bassist Stanley Jordan. His son Max also played tabla while his wife, Angela Moffett, played tamboura and also contributed vocals along with their daughter Amareia. His daring unaccompanied project in 2013, The Bridge: Solo Bass Works, found Charnett playing strictly upright acoustic bass on renditions of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song,” Wynton Marsalis’ “Black Codes (From The Underground)” and McCoy Tyner’s “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” along with Sting’s “Fragile,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and several originals. Son Max, daughter Amareia and wife Angela also made appearances on his other album from 2013, the typically bass-centric Spirit Of Sound, which featured a beautiful rendition of Ornette Coleman’s anthemic “Lonely Woman” that had Charnett carrying the lonesome melody on electric bass.

Following the 2016 death of his wife of 30 years, Moffett released 2017’s Music From Our Soul, featuring Stanley Jordan, Pharaoh Sanders, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Mike Clark and Victor Lewis. By 2018, his longtime friendship with Motéma’s Jana Herzen blossomed into a romance. They had previously collaborated on Herzen’s 2012 duet album, Passion Of A Lonely Heart, and played together once again (alongside violinist Scott Tixier, veteran keyboardist Brian Jackson, well known for his ’70s collaborations with Gil Scott-Heron, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.) on Charnett’s 2019 Motéma release Bright New Day. In his credits to that album, Moffett wrote: “This album is dedicated to any human being in the world who’s ever lost someone they love ... and also to any human being who’s ever found someone they love.”

Moffett’s 14th and final full album under his name, 2021’s New Love, a live album performed with Herzen, drummer Corey Garcia and saxophonist Irwin Hall, was a fitting epitaph to the beloved bassist-composer who dedicated his life to “bringing a little light and joy to the world.”

He released an EP Charnett Moffett Trio: LIVE later in 2021 and a single, “Shepherd 2 New Jersusalem” was released last month. DB



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