Charnett Moffett: From Young Lion to Old Soul

Thirty years ago, Charnett Moffett stepped out from his role as a young lion of bebop, backing Wynton Marsalis and Wallace Roney, to release his solo debut, Net Man—thus establishing himself as a forward-minded doubler willing and able to splash some new colors on jazz.
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Thirty years ago, Charnett Moffett stepped out from his role as a young lion of bebop, backing Wynton Marsalis and Wallace Roney, to release his solo debut, Net Man—thus establishing himself as a forward-minded doubler willing and able to splash some new colors on jazz. Moffett has marked the anniversary with his latest recording, Music From Our Soul, a spirited collection of recent live and live-in-studio tracks with his closest musical compadres, including guitarist Stanley Jordan (the two were childhood friends from the Bay Area), sax titan Pharoah Sanders, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Victor Lewis, and Mike Clark. As with his 11 previous albums, Moffett spreads his bass voice around, employing his fretless electric bass, acoustic bass, and pedalboard to issue melodies, support lines, and solos. The record also features his trademark bow technique, in which he strikes his upright’s strings just above the bridge with the back of his bow. “For me, it’s all connected,” he says. “Jimmy Garrison was doing that in the ’50s with a drumstick, and as a young kid I got to see Larry Graham using his thumb on electric bass. Everyone is unique, and if I’ve contributed to the vocabulary in any way, I’m grateful.”

Reflecting on your compositions, you favor basic melodies and arrangements that offer an open template for exploration.

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That seems to be the way I best express myself. It’s good to have a theme that listeners can remember and whistle, and this album has a fair share of those. Some of the most memorable songs are the ones that go right to the point. I also like to leave room for the musicians, because that’s the most exciting part. You can map out a road trip from point A to point B, but the scenery and the unexpected turns along the way are what lead you to improvise and figure out how to best continue on your path. Overall, I take a thematic approach to my music, but those themes change to reflect what’s going on in my life.

Your unorthodox background of hearing Eastern music before learning Western harmony certainly shaped your musical persona.

I owe it to my dad [drummer Charles Moffett]. When I was eight, we toured the Far East, with me playing a half-size bass. At that age you have an open mind, and the sounds I heard remained with me. I wrote my first song, “Good Wood,” in Singapore. My dad would always say, “Play from your heart and mind,” so it was more about expressing yourself with whatever information you had available. If you knew only a few notes or scales, you found a way to express yourself and then evolved from there. Coming from that freer lineage perhaps allowed me to see more creative possibilities that maybe I wouldn’t have, had I come from a traditional Western music education, where there are rules and an order to when you’re taught things. But I learned a lot from my formal teachers, too, especially [bassist] Homer Mensch at Juilliard, because without the proper technique you can’t accurately express what you’re hearing in your head. We all learn music differently, and it’s beautiful when we can appreciate the balance of the different approaches and put them all together.

Pharoah Sanders appears on three tracks.

He’s incredible—I’ve never played with anyone quite like him. It doesn’t matter if his note is inside or outside of the harmony, that note establishes the aura of what’s being shared at the moment. He gives you a lot of options as a bass player, because he holds his notes for a long time; you can play in unison with him or play any interval around the note to suggest a harmony. After a while, the chords and the key center don’t matter much; it’s all air. That’s the fun part, because everyone in the band is both following and leading at the same time, as a collective. It’s similar to the principles I learned with Ornette [Coleman], through his concepts like harmolodics and sound grammar.

How do you decide whether to use your acoustic or fretless electric on a piece?

It’s an initial feeling, usually based on sound. A lot of times I’ll play the song on both instruments, and that will tell me for sure. I lean toward the fretless more when I’m playing melodies, like on “Mediterranean” or “Sound World Suite.” If I want to be that lyrical on upright, I’ll use my bow, as I do on “Love in the Galaxies.” For playing more earthy, organic pieces, like “Celestial Dimensions” or my cover of “Mood Indigo,” the acoustic bass feels more appropriate.

You’ve pushed the envelope in jazz, playing electric bass, and using effects on both the electric and upright. Have you ever gotten any flak?

No one has complained yet [laughs]. Bob Cranshaw proved a long time ago that walking is viable on the electric bass. I’m just being myself. I love exploring the possibilities and finding new ways to keep the music interesting. I use effects because I’m hearing those other colors. Ornette did that, as well, but he would change instruments and play violin. It’s the same with Stanley [Jordan], when he plays piano. The instrument is just a tool through which we speak. The goal is to express our emotions and relay that feeling that to the listener. As Ornette once said to me, “You’re already playing the bass—try playing the idea.”


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Charnett Moffett, Music From Our Soul [2017, Motema Music]; Murray, Allen & Carrington, Perfection [2016, Motema Music]


Acoustic bass Lee Rocker Model Kolstein Busetto Travel Bass with Kolstein Heritage Orchestral/Jazz Perlon Bass strings, David Gage Realist LifeLine pickup, Barbera bridge pickup, Brazilian-made French-style bow
Electric basses Fretless Moon Jazz Bass with D’Addario EPS165SL Pro Steels (.045–.105); Moon piccolo bass (tuned EADG, an octave higher) with D’Addario EXL280 Nickel Wound Piccolo Bass (.020, .032, .042, .052)
Amps SWR SM-900 head, SWR Goliath 4x10 cabinet
Effects Boss CEB-3 Bass Chorus, Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Boss GEB-7 Bass EQ, Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal, Fulltone Bass-Drive MOSFET

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