Conversation with Charnett Moffett

Franz A. Matzner By

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...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?

CM: Yeah, you know, you’re only as good as your last show. So you’re only as good as how much time you’ve put in recently on the instrument. Personally, if I’m playing everyday, I get into...like...an artistic zone, in terms of my thought process and my energy. It’s like being an athlete. You have to take care of yourself, train properly, and prepare. I studied at Julliard for awhile. I spent a couple of years there before I basically left to go on the road with [Wynton] Marsalis. Let’s see, that’s going back almost nineteen years. I went to the LaGuardia High School of the Arts...but I was basically on the road with Wynton Marsalis since I was sixteen years old! I did that for two years.

FM: He brings a lot of musicians through his group.

CM: He’s really a wonderful person. He’s certainly done a lot for the music...and after my time with Marsalis I ended up playing with Tony Williams. That was quite an experience, to be able to work with one of the great innovators of the music... That was certainly quite an experience. Then I sort of moved on to some other different styles and genres, working with people like Stanley Jordon and David Sanborn and so forth. I guess for the past nine years I worked with Ornette Coleman, which is a whole other experience. And now I am very fortunate to be working with another great innovator of our times—he’s done so much for the legacy of the music—Mr. McCoy Tyner. I’ve been with him on and off now for the past two years.

FM: How did you start playing with Tyner?

CM: Oh, it’s been an incredible experience... I was recommended through a friend, Jason Elaine, who was actually the artistic director at that time out at Yoshi’s. McCoy has been doing several two week engagements there for several years now, from what I understand.

FM: It’s become almost a tradition.

CM: I was asked to be a part of that one year. I was very grateful to be asked, actually. (Chuckles.) So we got to playing, and I started learning from him. He would tell me things about music—what he was interested in—and I would try to adapt to his concept. Eventually, I guess I started getting it! I was very fortunate to maintain some kind of musical dialogue with one of the greatest piano players ever. It’s really been a truly great experience.

FM: What was it like that first time you played with him?

CM: Well, I was nervous of course.

FM: Really?

CM: How could you not be? You’re going into a different situation. You want to do your best and you have to have enough confidence to be up there playing in the first place, but by the same token you have to keep it all within balance of the environment... and understand ‘let me try to learn and grow from this experience’ so I can become a better musician. So as long as I’m keeping those things focused, I can continue to evolve as an artist and hopefully influence other artists that will play with me in the future.

FM: It seems to me that you use the bow quite frequently, and with a great degree of precision.

CM: Oh, really? (surprised) There’s always room for improvement.

FM: The bow still isn’t being used that often in jazz bass, is it?

CM: You know, I just think it’s a matter of personal expression. That’s what the music is really about... [Y]ou have to have a certain discipline within the freedom—or freedom within the discipline. You need the disciple to execute an idea technically, but you need to create the freedom in order to...have the ideas come to you spontaneously... I’ve kind of heard the bow as another version—or an extension—of my pizzicato voice. And it’s nice to be able to accompany the band and then utilize another voice as a soloist. It’s kind of an extension of the instrument. To add another color. Paul Chambers was doing this back in the sixties, so it’s not really anything new.

FM: No, but it doesn’t seem to have become a fully integrated or standard method yet either.

CM: I think one has to hear it before one develops the technique to do it. In other words, if you hear it, you’ll do what is necessary to utilize it as a voice.

FM: I noticed that a lot on Planet Home.

CM: You’ve heard that?!

FM: Actually, I love this album.

CM: That’s amazing. A lot of people don’t have that record over here in the States.

FM: I wanted to ask about some of your other recordings as well. You’ve done a series of them, and seem to have really tried on a lot of different styles.

CM: Well, you know, I’ve done a few. Here and there.

FM: Planet Home seems to have been a big break.

CM: Yeah, it really was kind of a breakthrough album for me. I don’t know, I guess...I was just at a different point in my life where I wanted to do some different music. So I went for it. You know, I always play the music that is in my heart, whatever style it is. I think it’s important to be sincere to yourself. Because when you’re playing the music, you want to connect with the people. Not in a contrived way, but in an honest way.

FM: And the people can hear it when it’s not.

CM: Exactly.

FM: I really thought this was an exceptional album. The solo pieces, and your work with Geoff Keezer...

CM: Oh yeah, he played wonderfully on the album.

FM: Now, tell me if I’m over-interpreting, but there seemed to be a political element to it[ Planet Home. Considering the song titles, and then doing “Star Spangled Banner” as a closing number.


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