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When Bass Leads – A Q&A with Jazz Legend Charnett Moffett / Portland Jazz Festival 2018

By MELLISH // Charnett Moffett played a solo concert at Classic Pianos on Saturday, February 15

Jazz royalty could be defined as having a name that is a contraction of your father and his legendary jazz bandmate -- such is the case with bassist Charnett Moffett.

 Charnett Moffett grew up in NYC, went to the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts – the basis for the movie and TV show “Fame,” as well as Juilliard in New York City. At 16 he played with Wynton Marsalis. He played on Branford Marsalis' debut LP as a leader, Scenes in the City, and Stanley Jordan's best-selling 1985 Blue Note debut, Magic Touch.

 In 1987 Moffett signed with Blue Note Records and debuted as a leader with the first of three albums, Beauty Within, which featured his father Charles on drums, older brothers Codaryl Moffett on drums and Mondre Moffett on trumpet, Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, and Stanley Jordan on guitar.

 He has performed and recorded with a litany of greats that includes Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Sharrock, Ellis Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, David Sanborn, and Arturo Sandoval.

 Additionally, he played on various movie soundtracks, including the acclaimed ensemble cast picture “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 1992, and featured as a soloist in 2001’s “The Score” starring Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando.

 His most recent record is 2017’s Music From Our Soul.

You come from a musical family -- your father Charles Moffett was the drummer with jazz icon Ornette Coleman's 1965-1967 trio. I understand your name is a contraction of Charles and Ornette -- is that true?


Among your father's many accomplishments included having worked with Sonny Rollins, recorded with Archie Shepp, and having led his own group, which included Pharoah Sanders, but not least was being the father of a remarkable musical family that includes you, drummer Codaryl, vocalist Charisse, trumpeter Mondre, and tenor saxophonist Charles Jr.

I am the youngest of 5. My father was my first teacher. He taught for many years, all ages and cultures. I listened to everything growing up.

 I understand you actually started playing with the family band at age 7? And then toured with them in Asia at age 8?

I played a half-sized bass. We made very improvisational music. I appreciated sounds from the east early as a result. We played music to share and uplift.

 What was it like to work with family?

It was a normal way of life. When you grow up in a setting like that it’s natural. There was music around the house 24 hours a day. A lot of travel at an early age.

 You later would play with your kids Max, Angela, & Amareia on 2010's Treasure LP, which had a distinctively Eastern, Indian flavor.

And the Spirit of Sound LP. Acoustic and fretless bass as lead instrument has its advantages and disadvantages. A challenge is finding the natural positions that express the sound of the instrument at its best -- open strings allow you to have a lot of overtones and harmonics. One piece was “Say La La” with tambour, harp, and sitar, which allowed upright bass more accompaniment and lead than traditionally.

 How do you choose material? Especially when you can play anything.

I just follow the heart, nothing else to do. Isn’t it all about love at the end of the day? When you love what you do you want just want to share it with people. There’s no guarantees in life.

 How is bass as the lead instrument different than other instruments like sax, guitar, or percussion?

It’s only our brain and limitations on ourselves that keeps instruments to a role. Classical has more than one bass, and sections playing the same instrument. There’s very little difference.

 You redefined the “Star Spangled Banner” on 1994's Planet Home record in ways not heard since Jimi Hendrix played it at Woodstock.

It totally related to artistic not political purposes. I had a gig in the 80s when on Bluenote and played at the Apollo – a solo bass gig, and recorded it on cassette. The playback was distorted because of being too close to the amp when recorded. It sounded like bass played through a distortion pedal, although played acoustic, so an accident. Then I heard Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” and decided to run the bass through an effects pedal and try it as experimentation. It’s been a while since I played it. I’d rather stick to being a musician not a politician so people know I’m doing it from my heart with integrity and that I want to share artistically.

 What can people expect, and what do you want them to take away when they see you live?

A solo show is much different than a group; Bass has low frequencies, even with high notes, sound effects, whatever it is will be from the heart; It’ll flow like water. You want people to feel the creative experience, to witness it and be a part of it. They can expect the feeling of a movement that can allow them to relax and get into their deeper inner consciousness, music for healing, themes and melodies they’ll recognize as well as an improvisational experience they’ll find soothing to their soul and entertaining. It’s not easy to command a stage as a solo bassist. You can generally feel the vibe of people around you and what to play. It’s my job as an artist to make everybody feel good. To keep it exciting for me I have to do something I haven’t done, but I need to play for the audience.

 Do you go in with a set list, or try and get a feel for the audience?

Yes. I can always find something to relate to in everybody – I take a very positive attitude. I try and keep it interesting in tempo, everything can’t be the same, and have as much diversity as possible, the most colors as possible, while touching tradition all with one instrument. Lower frequencies are good for relaxing mind body and soul. Higher frequencies are higher energy. I tap into the key note of the tone of the vibration in the room. Each space you perform in has its own sound in the space. You want to go with the energy in the space. There’s a science to how this works, it’s not just playing a tune and that’s it.

 Your recent LP, Music From Our Soul, features as guests Pharoah Saunders, Stanley Jordan, Cyrus Chestnut, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts -- who you played with on Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground). Did you look for a balance between tradition and innovation?

The record covers a range of moods from energetic to a quieter reflective sound. We need music as human beings. If it makes you feel better in a positive light it’s a good thing. I’m constantly learning and improvising -- by the time you learn it you’re trying something else. If you’re into the art of it.

What is left for you -- what haven't you done that you want to do next?

I would like to write a symphonic piece, but it takes time, and depends on the touring schedule. It depends on how much time I have in the day, because it requires practice. I don’t force it. If it comes, it comes. When you’re hit by a creative idea you develop it, then arrange it.

My forte is being at peace with the music I’m expressing at the moment that is spontaneous.


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