Conversation with Charnett Moffett
“ ...the only thing I can really tell you is that I ”
Charnett Moffett is an extraordinary bassist. Some might say this is no surprise. After all, not only is he the son of percussionist Charles Moffett, but he also received musical training from an entire family of musicians, all of whom played together in the Moffett family band since Charnett was barely able to walk. He had already studied the drums and the trumpet before turning to the bass. He must have made this transition sometime before reaching the age of eight, because by then he had already begun performing with the Moffett Band on a half-sized instrument. With that kind of training and the incredible environment of jazz that surrounded Moffett, not to mention his later access to such musical greats as Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, and many others, some might argue that Moffett couldn’t help but become what he has.
All of that might be true, if all we were talking about was a good bassist, or even a great bassist, but Moffett is definitely more than that. He is an extraordinary musician who has not only mastered his instrument and proven himself a tremendous composer, but has shown himself to be an innovator of technique. And there is one last thing that Moffett projects which no amount of training can produce: honesty. This is the kind of honesty that leads to the spiritual center of music, distinguishing the extraordinary artist from extraordinary musicians. This quality must be located within, cultivated through dedication, maintained by exhaustive practice, and continually rekindled through a process of inward searching and expansion that very few are ready or willing to undertake.
Moffett is also a highly personable individual possessed of a laughter-filled voice and a compelling openness. He holds himself with dignity, but never remove, and when he shakes your hand and smiles, you immediately know that you are welcome and that you are about to engage in a genuine, often humor-filled interaction.
On this occasion, Moffett and I spoke via phone just prior to his performance with McCoy Tyner and Al Foster at the University of Maryland’s 25th William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival.
Franz Matzner: My first question is pretty simple. Why the bass? You came from a very musical family, so there’s no question of how you were introduced to jazz, but why bass?
Charnett Moffett: (Laughing.) That’s a very simple question for me to answer. The family band needed a bassist. That’s basically what happened. I actually started out on drums. Then I was playing trumpet. But by the time I was eight years old I was playing a half-sized bass for the Moffett family band. [It was] a little bit bigger than the cello, but it was tuned in fourths.
FM: Once you started on the bass, did you pretty much stick with it?
CM: Well, I started on the upright, but about two years later I started playing electric, that being the theme of my generation. I pretty much stayed with the bass from then on. Both of those basses, actually.
FM: You also picked up the piccolo, right?
CM: Yeah, later on. I must have bought some of Stanley Clarke’s records there—and I thought I’d give that a try as well.
FM: What are the differences playing on piccolo?
CM: Well, there’s a big difference between playing on an upright and just the electric bass itself. They have a lot in common, but are almost two totally different instruments. One’s a huge violin, and the other’s a guitar, basically. The only difference between the electric bass and the piccolo bass is that the piccolo is tuned an octave higher. I guess you could tune it any way you like, but the norm is one would be tuned an octave higher, which is basically tenor guitar. It’s really the bottom four strings of the guitar without the top two.
FM: So it’s only the electric piccolo you’re playing?
CM: That’s right. Now, Ron Carter plays an upright piccolo bass that’s tuned I guess an octave higher, but that comes more out of the concept of how Oscar Pettiford was playing the cello when he had Mingus accompanying him on those particular recordings. But I’ve chosen to play the electric piccolo from time to time. I’m not really doing a lot of that right now. I’m trying to concentrate on the upright bass and, of course, the fretless electric bass right now.
FM: You’ve definitely developed just an enormous technique on all those instruments... I was wondering if you could sketch some of your educational background.
CM: Well, honestly, I’m still learning.
FM: That’s going to go on forever, though, right?