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Charnett Moffett: On Loss, Love & Vibrational Healing

Overdue Ovation for veteran bassist

Photo of bassist Charnett Moffett
Bassist Charnett Moffett

It’s 2 p.m. Eastern, load-in time at Jazz Standard in Manhattan. Charnett Moffett, who’s playing the club tonight to celebrate the release of his latest album, Music From Our Soul (Motéma), walks in the service entrance wearing dark clothes and a floppy white hat much like the one Bob Denver sported on Gilligan’s Island. He’s lugging two basses, one electric and one acoustic upright, and he looks a little bedraggled following the commute from his home just outside of Philadelphia. As soon as he’s set the equipment down by the stage, he takes a seat and pulls two tuning forks out of his pocket. First he lightly taps them together. Then he places them by the openings of his ear canals for about 30 seconds, closing his eyes, inhaling deeply and concentrating on the pure sound resonating in his head.

“Vibrational healing,” he explains, visibly refreshed, once the moment has passed. “It comes from the balance of frequencies. The lower frequencies help you relax and the higher frequencies make you alert. If there’s no balance, there’s no life.”

Moffett can use some healing vibrations right now, and not just to relieve the jazzman’s everyday hassle of schlepping instruments around. This has been a supremely tough year. Angela Moffett, his wife since 1988 and the mother of his two children, died suddenly in September at 57. “Sometimes people have to disappear before you realize certain things,” he says. “If I didn’t have the partner that I had for 30 years, I would have never been able to be the musician that I am. That is a major part of the physical loss. But the spiritual aspect is that love never fails. Love is an eternal blessing. Share it any way you can.” He looks back at the stage and says with a chuckle, “You can share your love by bringing in the equipment.”

Music From Our Soul is a tribute to Angela as well as a commemoration of Charnett’s 50th birthday and the 30th anniversary of Net Man, his debut as a leader. Featuring an impressive roster of sidemen including saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, guitarist/keyboardist Stanley Jordan, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Victor Lewis and Mike Clark—all of whom go back decades with Moffett—it’s a craftily edited mix of live and studio takes. “I listened very carefully over a long time putting this record together,” Moffett reports, “trying to find where the music’s natural starting points were.

“I always remember something Tony Williams said. I was doing a gig with him in the ’80s, somewhere in Europe, and there was a sax player who was subbing in the band. Tony liked what this guy was doing by the time he got to maybe the third chorus of his solos. So he said afterwards, ‘It’s sounding great, but you know when you get to your third or fourth chorus? Start there.’ Today, with all this great editing technology, you can start there.”

The new album’s centerpiece is “Come and Play,” a dynamic trio recording with Chestnut and Lewis. After some imaginative walking under Chestnut’s solo, Moffett goes col legno, attacking the strings of his upright with the back of his bow while hammering-on notes with his left hand. Then he flips the bow around and turns on his distortion and wah-wah pedals for maximum skronk. His performance, as abandoned as it is virtuosic, lends weight to a recent comment by Lewis, who’s known Moffett since the latter was a teenager: “If you do the math, you know that Charnett started playing music at a very young age. But the way I like to look at it is that he started playing music long before this lifetime.”

Stanley Jordan hired Moffett to play on his 1985 debut album, Magic Touch, on Blue Note, and has been a close friend ever since. But he’d first seen Moffett play a decade earlier, in the band led by the bassist’s father, Charles Moffett, an important drummer best known for his work with Ornette Coleman. (Charnett was named after both men.) Charnett was 8 at the time, and the reason he’d become a bass player was because his dad’s band needed one. “There were two musical families that inspired me,” Jordan recalls, “the Jacksons and the Moffetts. Charnett was, to me, the Michael Jackson of jazz. He had the same prodigious energy when he was 8 that he has today.”

“Without getting any nepotism into it, my dad was my first teacher,” Moffett says. “He taught us that if you can only play three notes, find out how many different ways you can play those three notes. You had to think about time, order, phrasing, long and short. … That changed everything right there.”

From the family band, Moffett graduated to significant stints with Coleman, Williams, Wynton Marsalis and McCoy Tyner, among many others. Already exhibiting nonpareil skills on upright, he made it his business to keep progressing as an improviser. “I was rehearsing with Ornette once and I asked him, ‘What’s the bass part?’ And he said, ‘You’re already playing the bass; now play the idea.’ When you improvise, it’s all about the idea. And you’re always discovering new ways to approach that idea.”

He’s also discovered new ways to approach his instrument, switching between acoustic and electric fretless while applying a range of techniques (and effects technology) to each. “The upright and the fretless are two distinct sounds,” he says. “Adding the wah-wah to both is a third sound that helps me express the more lyrical side of myself. It’s a separate entity. So is the bow. Then there’s the bow with the wah-wah. Now you’ve got five sounds coming from one foundational reference point.”

“Back in the day, everybody wanted Charnett to play acoustic,” Jordan says. “It’s understandable, because nobody swings like him on acoustic—it’s like he’s channeling cosmic radiation—but he’s also an amazing electric player. I’d like to think I helped influence his direction a little, because when I was opening for Wynton and Charnett was in Wynton’s band, I invited Charnett over to my hotel room and hooked him up to my effects pedals. He started wailing, and I remember thinking, ‘Shit, Wynton’s gonna kill me!’”

“In the era when I came up, the ’80s,” Moffett says, “you could still walk a bassline in a traditional way, but the flip side of that was what [Jaco] Pastorius and [Stanley] Clarke were doing. They were using the instrument as a voice. And the advantage of growing up in New York was I could hear Ray Brown at one club and then go around the corner and hear Jaco. Then the next night Jaco would come to my gig. He’d say, ‘Charnett, now it’s your turn,’ and sit in the front row. And then he’d fall asleep!”

Like Jaco, Moffett plays with astonishing fire and fluidity but there’s also a romantic side to his work, in addition to pronounced hints of other cultures. “One of the first tours I did was in 1975, and we toured the Far East,” he says. “I grew up listening to Western and Eastern music. I’ve played with the Master Musicians of Jajouka and then I’ve gone to Ireland and played with bagpipers, and all those sounds started to intertwine with each other. I realized that the notes are the same wherever you go. Jazz is really fusion anyway, because it’s fusing European harmonies with the blues and African rhythms. Swing is the pendulum that covers all of the balance. And the common denominator is love.”

Moffett speaks these words with a big smile, but his penetrating gaze leaves no doubt about his seriousness. As Victor Lewis puts it, “On and off the bandstand, Charnett is one of the realest cats I know. Almost to a fault. He cannot do pretense. He does not know how to be detached. And when he’s playing, there are no moments when he’s not playing his heart out. Every time he calls the spirit.”

Onstage at Jazz Standard, the spirit is definitely being called. Flanked by saxophonist Irwin Hall, violinist Scott Tixier, keyboardist Brian Jackson, guitarist Jana Herzen and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., Moffett is equal parts muscle and melody. The show closes with the gentle groove of “Love for the People,” as the bassist lets a long downward glissando edge into silence. And then, after the applause has ended but before the post-show meet-and-greet begins, out come the tuning forks again. For Moffett, balance is everything.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Music From Our Soul by Charnett Moffett on iTunes. Originally Published