Charnett Moffett: Improvisational Artistry

R.J. DeLuke BY

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"I enjoy all of the music, just as I enjoy different aspects of color in paintings, or different people, or different types of food, or things of that nature. For me, it seems to be a more interesting way of life to have an appreciation for all that is offered on the planet."

Charnett Moffett

With that simple statement, bassist Charnett Moffett says a lot about his career in music that began as young a child, and was pretty much inevitable from the moment he appeared on the planet in 1967, as the son of drummer Charles Moffett. He started playing drums at age two, and then investigated the trumpet before he eventually found his hands around an upright bass, performing with the Moffett Family Band, led by his dad, that included brother Cody Moffett (Cody) also on drums, brother Mondre on trumpet and brother Charles, Jr. on sax. Bass chores were handled by Patrick McCarthy and young Charnett on a half-sized bass.

He toured Japan at the age of seven with the family band and roughly a decade later was in the employ of Wynton Marsalis. He's since spent years playing all kinds of improvised music, moving from the mainstream lodgings of Marsalis to under the aegis of the free-spirited Ornette Coleman. He's recorded over the years with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Stanley Jordan, Pharoah Sanders, Wallace Roney and Joshua Redman. Though improvisational is at the base of his musical explorations, his music influences and tastes are broad. That can be seen in his albums, from his 1987 debut on Blue Note records, Beauty Within, right up to his current recording, The Art of Improvisation (Motema, 2009), his tenth as a leader.

"It's just about being honest with yourself," says Moffett. "I've been saying the same thing for years now. I haven't changed my philosophy much, but the music keeps changing based on the creative idea that I wish to share with my audience."

"The Art of Improvisation is an album inspired by my improvisational experiences in the last 26 years. I wanted to bring improvisation to the forefront of the album. We have found that's where the artist can be most expressive and also have others to share their ideas freely as well," says Moffett. It has Eastern influences throughout, most obviously the duet, "Call for Peace," with duet Tibetan vocalist Yun Chen Lhamo. But there are also other traces of it in the album.

"The interesting thing about being a musician is realizing that if you look for the simplicity and the connection of sound and notes ... there's really not that much difference. There's only 12 notes in the diatonic system. I wanted to figure out how many different ways I could connect sounds from the West with the East and everything in between there, and doing it in an improvisational way from the root of jazz. Jazz music is so expressive that it allows you all these possibilities to play any way you really wish to if you set up a formula that has these rules that are engaged."

Moffett plays upright bass, fretless electric bass guitar and piccolo bass, and does so with a combination of musicians including drummers Will Calhoun and Eric McPherson, keyboardist Scott Brown, guitarists Pat Jones and Steve Barnes and trumpeter Robert Joseph Avalon. Angela Moffett recites the words of poet Langston Hughes on "Dreams." His son, Charnett Max Moffett, is showcased on "Swing Rock" and a few other tunes, notably the Jimi Hendrix-inspired interpretation of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The tunes are largely split among trios, duets and solo bass playing. But "Dreams" is a dynamic large group effort, a free-form piece influenced by his association with Ornette Coleman. (His father was Coleman's drummer for a time, and Charnett's name comes from a hybrid of his father's first name, Charles, and Ornette.)

Says Moffett, "The names came to me naturally. It wasn't any theme more than that. But it's nice to have dreams. It's nice to live in America. And it's nice to see other aspects and cultures of the world and appreciate their value, gifts and contribution to society as well.

"I played with Ornette for nine years. It was an incredible experience. It was before I played with McCoy Tyner for almost seven years. Then I went back and played with Ornette for another year. After leaving Ornette to promote my own music, it was kind of full circle for me. It reminded me of how I started music with the Moffett Family Band. Playing with my dad, my brothers, two drummers. 'Dreams' does have two drummers: Max Moffett my son, and Eric McPherson. The message about 'Dreams' was inspired by being an American, which I am glad to say. That's also the whole inspiration behind 'The Star Spangled Banner,' besides being a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, and finding those influences between someone like that and Ravi Shankar, for example. It's really all connected.

"When you look at a festival like Woodstock, you had an artist like Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix playing the same festival, with two totally different styles of music, yet using the same notes. I wanted to implement those possibilities on The Art of Improvisation from the root of jazz, which allows you to have many possibilities ... incorporating different sounds and creative expressions together so that everyone's dream can be fulfilled."

The recording also puts on display Moffett's virtuoso bass technique on all three instruments. He plays standard upright bass on "Elements of Life," but on the title track, he gets different sounds by tapping the strings with the bow down by the bridge while fingering notes on the neck of the bass with his left hand, getting different sounds and, at times, a percussive effect. His electric work on "Swing Rock" has a Jaco Pastorius feel. He plays all the axes with authority and conviction.

"I'm searching for even more sounds, which is why I'm constantly keeping an open mind to what exists in our world today," he says. "For me, it's quite natural. I'm from New York City. I grew up in the Bay Area [California] and finished school here in New York, before finishing up at Juilliard and going out on the road with Wynton Marsalis 25 years ago. So when you grow up in a diverse environment like that, you're really not thinking in a one-dimensional form. You're simply being yourself and enjoying all of the cultures that are offered. For me, the colors represent different concepts, philosophies and cultures based on what you have experienced or what you've been introduced to."

"I used to play trumpet before I started playing bass," he adds. "So when I'm playing my piccolo bass, I'm thinking more like a horn player or guitarist, conceptually, which is something people would not normally get a chance to hear me do playing my double bass in the traditional role. So it's nice to be able to tell and share another side of the story that is also me. The same way with the fretless bass, which I've been doing for quite a while now—for as long as I've been playing the upright bass."

He adds, "Each instrument has its own way that it's built scientifically to get notes that sing out more. The bass is predominantly the supportive instrument, however it can be used in other capacities, if you can figure out the right science to introduce it and make it heard, without force. There are other ways. You can use wah-wah pedals to give it more color."

WithThe Art of Improvisation "it was time for me to trust in my natural way of thinking and keep going with some of the concepts I had already established back when I made albums like Planet Home (Evidence Music, 2003)."

But Moffett, while playing gigs to support the 2009 CD, is already off to other things and has another CD set for release in April 2010. "I've just finished recording Treasure (Motema), an extension of what we did on AOI [Art of Improvisation]. There's more focus on the melodies of the tunes and still incorporating the improvisation as well," says Moffett. "Each time I do a project or make an album, it's a process that I'm building as the music is constantly evolving."

His son Max Moffett and daughter Amareia Moffett will be among the 13 special guests on the album. Others include Stanley Jordan and Denardo Coleman. "It's somewhat of a family affair with Moffett family members, of course. Stanley Jordan and Denardo Coleman, who I've known all my life. Young, great players. Trumpet, bass clarinet and sax. A harpist and guitarist. So it does have that Eastern influence as well as the Western sounds that are connected in a jazzy, melodic improvisational way. There are different types of grooves and sounds. It's a very interesting album."

And since the recent completion of that album, Moffett has already been busy writing new music. "It's not something that you plan. It just comes to you," says the bassist. "It's a special thing that happens with artists, which is why we do what we do for a living. You can't plan when an idea is going to hit you. There are ways you can go about it. You can say, 'Ok. I'm going to write a tune today,' and you can sit down and technically make yourself write a composition. But there's nothing like going to the grocery store and a melody pops into your head and it just happens spontaneously. Or you can be watching TV or reading a book (when inspiration strikes). I don't have any one way that I compose music. It also depends on what I want to say and the importance of the message that I'm sharing with the audience, emotionally. Because, after all, when we're listening to music, we're getting some kind of emotional or intellectual fulfillment, or spiritual, from the sound we're hearing."

"Music is like oxygen, in a lot of ways. It provides life. It's a life force. I think the world would be a pretty dim place without the sound of music," he says. "I don't have any one particular format how composition happens. There have been times where I know there is a record date coming up and I have to prepare for an album. But even within that, you kind of let it happen and not have anything be contrived, so that when you're playing a concert or people are buying your music and hearing it, they know that they're feeling with you or, at that moment in space and time, are as close as possible to the original creation of the idea."

Charnett Moffett Charnett Moffett and Eric McPherson

Composition has always been important to Moffett as a way to express himself beyond the notes that come flying out of his bass. "On the albums I have recorded up until now, I've always composed all of the music. I'm starting to feel more comfortable expressing my musical vision and sharing it with the different communities of the music world. I'm pleased to do that. It's nice to be a bassist, but interesting being a composer and settling into another aspect of my career at this point," he says.

"In the music business, you have to make yourself as diverse as possible in order to keep your artistry going," he notes, so he continues to do work as a sideman with people like guitarist Jordan, and another guitarist Jana Herzen. "I'm modifying my sideman work, with the exception of people I want to work with, that I find musically interesting. If you look at my resume, there are so many great artists that I've already had the honor to work with and learn from. I have to start saving a little time for myself so I can share some of my own compositional ideas with today's music world. ... I'm enjoying it. It's always great to play with many different people in different settings, and continuing to enjoy the great gift of music."

With music all around his family, Moffett seems to have had little choice, but he's grateful for his life and music and has happily passed the gift on to his own children. He said growing up in the family band "had its pros and cons, like everything in life. But the positives certainly outweigh the negative. When I look back now, I realize I've actually been on the road 26 years straight. That's all I've been doing is learning music and performing it. But it's my music that I'm sharing or someone else's vision that I'm helping to build, or being a part of," he notes. "It's been a great run. I'm thankful to still be in the music business after so long and to look at it with a new understanding, a new vision, a rejuvenation. We got through ups and downs in life, and there's always another door that opens to allow you a light to transcend where you've been. That's part of life as a whole. ... As a parent, I've been able to communicate that to my own family. It's great, it really is. It's part of the life chain of having food or oxygen, the way that we feed our soul in order to keep going."

He took up the bass because the family band needed a bassist. "When I started in the Moffett Family Band I was playing trumpet. ... We had had another bassist at that time by the name of Patrick McCarthy, who was actually the principal bassist with the Oakland Symphony, who gave me some training as a youngster of seven or eight. Eight years later, I'm at Juilliard School of Music studying with Homer Mensch, and about six months after that, I'm on the road with Wynton Marsalis and I haven't looked back since. I've been on the road full-time since that period."

Like most budding musicians, he was influenced by many of the great players. He cites Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter and Pastorius as his primary influences, but adds "I'm into so many different bass players for different reasons. Ray Brown, Percy Heath, Larry Graham, James Jamerson who played on all those classic records for Motown. Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro. They're all incredible players. It's not just one guy."

As for other influences, his father, an educator as well as a drummer, is key to his development. "I would say learning to play music from a philosophy my old man taught us—which is freedom with discipline concept: the freedom to create the idea that you want, the discipline to have the technique to execute the idea—that's a nice way to learn how to play because it was based on having no limitations. Philosophically speaking, that's how I got interested in so many different kinds of music. [At home] one minute Bach would be playing, and the next minute Earth, Wind & Fire, and the next minute John Phillip Sousa would be playing in the house, because my dad was a music educator. The style of music never stayed in one arena."

After touring with his family, Moffett attended Fiorello H. La Guardia High School for the Music and Arts, in New York City, before eventually ending up at Juilliard. In 1983, he played on Branford Marsalis' debut as a leader, Scenes in the City (Columbia, 1984), and the following year he joined the Wynton Marsalis quintet, appearing on 1985's acclaimed Black Codes From the Underground (Columbia). He played with legendary drummer Tony Williams, and in 1987 signed with Blue Note Records and debuted as a leader that year with Beauty Within. He's been recording ever since and had a highly successful recording career.

He took something positive away from each musical giant with whom he was associated. From Coleman, "I've learned not to discriminate against sound. That's what the Sound Grammar is about, which is the evolution of harmolodic music. Someone like Ornette Coleman has spent 50 years doing this and is still evolving, so how can I possibly not keep an open mind for change and progress?"

About Williams, Moffett says the drum wizard "was phenomenal. What I learned from Tony was about energy and how to move space—the power of it. ... I spent about two-and-a-half years with Mr. Williams, who was a complete innovator on his instrument. It was an incredible joy. He was on fire every night: completely creative, very rarely would be repetitive—only in the sense of the theme. An extraordinary musician as well as a person. It's unfortunate that a lot of the drummers I play with today didn't get a chance to see him perform live. They have the records, but it was nothing like seeing him live. It was completely amazing.

"I remember we did a tour where we did 29 concerts in 31 days. I never forgot that tour. Every night he played something great that was unique and different. I was, like, 'Wow.' [chuckles] He was a huge inspiration. Also, he was a great composer. Rhythm section players who have an opportunity to express their voice from a compositional standpoint, that's really an extra perk. It's so rare that those things can happen. Of course, Charles Mingus set the standard for that ... to not just deal with the instrument, but the whole story, the song as a whole.

Thinking of Tyner, he notes, "I just saw him in Tokyo. He never sounded better. ... McCoy is in a class by himself in that he's very patient. He lets things build and happen naturally. He would talk about being able to have the flexibility to go with something, even if it's in a structured form, so that the music is always being represented on the highest level. Sometimes you have to play a little less to get the most out of something. That is a great way to continue to apply balance to something that could be complicated at times. It was a heck of an institution to be a part of, as well as playing with people like Art Blakey. I don't think a lot of people of my generation—I'm 42—have had an opportunity to have experienced some of those different schools of jazz music and incorporate the complexities with simplicity. Balance is a good thing, like day and night."

Moffett notes that "when you put all these concepts and philosophies together, everyone has similarities, and yet they all are unique in their own way"

"I think jazz is a great way for people to expand their possibilities of what can be done musically, because it incorporates so many different styles of music. ... It never stops. Every day we have life and we get up living. There's always something to keep reaching for. Just when you think you've gotten this done or figured this out, here comes along another idea and more information and it keeps on going. It's like a fountain with a flow of energy that is constant," says Moffett. "That's why people like Hank Jones and Ravi Shankar and Ornette Coleman can still be on the road making music for people at their age, because not only are they sharing a sound and a concept of music that brings joy and healing to others, but they're also refreshing their own bodies and souls as well, regardless of the style of music that they're playing. Music is a life force that keeps the energy moving in the universe."

At 42, Moffett has miles to go before he sleeps, and he's happy to be in such a creative field, sharing the gift of music with others. "It has been my entire life. It is a wonderful blessing to be a musician and to appreciate the ability that music has to bring people together, even if it is for a short period of time. I think it makes significant changes in the way that it can make people feel better day to day. It's a positive to be able to give people a good feeling through music, regardless of what the style may be. People like music for different reasons and use music for many different reasons. To each his own. However, as an artist I just want to be true to my own identity and keep myself settled in a way that I honestly give in a creative way, with inspiration. Not as: 'Oh, what am I going to do now,' but with the attitude of: 'I'm looking forward to doing this now.' It all depends on what your objectives are in order to share the information."

Selected Discography

Charnett Moffett, The Art of Improvisation (Motema, 2009)
Charnett Moffett, Internet (Piadrum Records, 2006)
Charnett Moffett, For Love of Peace (Piadrum Records, 2004)
McCoy Tyner, Land of the Giants (Telarc, 2003)
Charnett Moffett, Planet Home (Evidence Music, 2003)
Charnett Moffett, Still Life (Evidence Music, 1997)
Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum: Hidden Man (Polygram, 1996)
Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum: Three Women (Polygram, 1996)
Charnett Moffett, Nettwork (Blue Note, 1991)
Tony Williams, Angel Street (Blue Note, 1988)
Tony Williams, Civilization (Blue Note, 1986)
Charnett Moffett, Net Man (Blue Note, 1987)
Charnett Moffett, Beauty Within (Blue Note, 1987)
Wynton Marsalis, Black Codes from the Underground (Columbia, 1985)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Volume12

Page 2, 5: Jose Horna

Page 3: John Rogers

Page 4: Madli-Liis Parts

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