Charnett Moffett, a bassist and composer whose virtuosity on both electric (often fretless) and acoustic instruments was matched by his versatility, died April 11 at Stanford University Medical Center in Stanford, Calif. The cause was a heart attack. Moffett’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Lydia Liebman, who issued an official announcement on April 13. Moffett was 54 and “had been struggling with bouts of intense pain from Trigeminal Neuralgia for the past few years,” according to the announcement.
Despite his young age, Moffett was ubiquitous for nearly four decades, both as an accompanist/collaborator and as a bandleader. A former child prodigy who first recorded at age eight with his drummer father Charles Moffett Sr., he reportedly contributed to more than 200 albums during his career, by a dizzying array of artists ranging from Pharoah Sanders to Harry Connick Jr., Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Jordan, Anita Baker, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Carla Bley, and McCoy Tyner.
As a leader, Moffett cut his debut album, Net Man, for Blue Note Records in 1987, ultimately releasing 16 further albums under his own name. He signed to the Motéma Music label in 2009, releasing The Art of Improvisation, the first of seven albums as a leader for that label; the most recent, a trio/quartet set titled New Love, was released in 2021. In JazzTimes’ review of the album, this author wrote, “Not only is he a skillful, original stylist on his instrument, but he also refuses to let himself be restricted by what we think that instrument should be.”
Moffett also collaborated with singer/songwriter/guitarist Jana Herzen, founder and president of Motéma, beginning with her 2012 album Passion of a Lonely Heart. They released ’Round the World, a duo set, in 2020, followed by Live in 2021, the latter under Herzen’s name. (Moffett and Herzen married in February 2020.)
Charnett Moffett was a New York City native, born on June 10, 1967. His family was musical; in addition to his father, best known for his work with Coleman, his three older brothers all played: Mondre on trumpet, Charles Jr. on tenor sax, and Codaryl on drums (their sister Charisse sang). Charnett was seven when he appeared on a Moffett family album; he first toured the Far East with them the following year.
After finishing his formal music education, Moffett turned professional. He contributed to Branford Marsalis’ 1984 Scenes in the City album and worked regularly with Wynton Marsalis between 1983 and 1985, playing double bass on the trumpeter’s Black Codes (From the Underground). During that time, Moffett became a prolific session man as well, appearing on recordings by such artists as Sonny Sharrock, Tony Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Dianne Reeves, and David Sanborn.
Moffett followed Net Man—which featured Michael Brecker, Kenny Kirkland, and Al Foster—in 1989 with Beauty Within; the recording highlighted Moffett’s family members as well as guitarist Jordan and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
After his stay at Blue Note, Moffett released albums on several labels, including Manhattan, Apollon, Telarc, Sweet Basil, Evidence and Piadrum, before signing with Motéma. During the ’80s and ’90s, he kept even more busy by recording with Jordan (including the 1985 mega-selling Magic Touch), Garrett, Coleman, Sadao Watanabe, Wallace Roney, Arturo Sandoval, and many others.
Moffett’s reputation as a lyrical, inventive player within virtually any setting led to a seemingly endless stream of work—he also appeared on recordings by the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, beginning with a 1984 eponymous release, and joined that group in 1992 when its resident bassist, Eddie Gomez, left.
In 1993, Moffett joined Sanders’ band; three years later he contributed to Coleman’s simultaneously released Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women. A trio of ’90s recordings under the rubric General Music Project featured Moffett alongside Charles Moffett Sr., Garrett, and pianists Geri Allen and Cyrus Chestnut.
Moving into the new century, Moffett’s credits included more collaborations, as well as a solo bass recording, The Bridge, in 2013. Music From Our Soul, a 2017 leader release, included Sanders, Jordan, Chestnut, and drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Victor Lewis, and Mike Clark. In his review, JazzTimes’ Philip Booth noted of the album, “[It] handily demonstrates the free-spirited, groove-intensive approach he’s taken with his music in recent years. It’s a winning set of electric-acoustic music, playful but serious and sometimes challenging.”
This publication also celebrated Moffett’s career that same year with an Overdue Ovation profile by Mac Randall. In that piece, Victor Lewis is quoted as saying, “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.”