Charnett Moffett - the bass man NettWorks
Charnett Moffett is looking back over his forty years as a touring musician when he states his age – forty-eight - and pauses to confirm he’s made the correct calculation. He’s right: he was indeed eight years old when he first hit the road with the family band on a half-size double bass, playing alongside his father, Charles, on drums behind his trumpet and saxophone-playing brothers on a tour of the Far East.
“I was really playing second bass in the band because one of my teachers, Patrick McCarthy, who was the principal bassist in the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, was on that tour with us,” he says. “But it was an experience I’ll cherish forever.”
Eight years later, he had another experience that he’ll cherish forever – he’s had many more before and since – when he joined trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s quintet, having already played on Marsalis’s older brother, saxophonist Branford’s Scenes in the City album. It was in Wynton Marsalis’s group that Moffett met the drummer he’ll have with him when he returns to Glasgow Jazz Festival on June 28, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts. Moffett and the guitarist in his NettWork trio, Stanley Jordan, go even further back.
“I met Stanley back in the late 1970s, at a Moffett Family band show in California, so he and Jeff are old, dear friends,” he says. “It’s great to have them in the group because not only are they two of the most talented musicians anywhere, they’re guys I’d want to be around anyway.”
NettWork allows Moffett to switch roles. As a bassist, he says, it’s always been his job to support other people. It’s a job he’s fulfilled with distinction, working with a veritable Who’s Who of the music scene from the recently deceased father of free jazz, Ornette Coleman (Charnett is a combination of his father and Coleman’s first names) to singer-actor-comedian Bette Midler and from the university of hard bop that was Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and popular saxophonist David Sanborn, with whom he previously appeared in Glasgow, to one of the leading young singers of today, Melody Gardot.
“I wouldn’t want to sound partial because you always learn something, no matter who you’re working with,” he says when asked if one experience in particular stands out. “But there’s no-one I’ve come across who is quite like Ornette Coleman. His harmolodic concept, which has now evolved into something that truly is global, allowed us to use our instruments in a way that really is like a voice letting us express what’s inside us.”
It’s every instrumentalist’s goal to make their instrument sound like a voice, he says, laughing at his example of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald improvising in imitation of a horn player while all the horn players of the time were trying to imitate her.
“This is why I’ve been playing the fretless bass guitar a lot more. When I play with singers, I hear all these elements that I want to capture. It might be Harry Connick Junior, who has a great voice for fronting a big band, or Diane Reeves, who’s very soulful, or Melody Gardot, who has an extraordinary tone, very beautiful. I listen to these artists and they’ll have a flow of phrasing that communicates very directly and I want to create a similar impression so that the audience can follow where I’m going and sing along even if there are no words.”
The ultimate example of this is when he plays solo bass concerts – he recently recorded his first album of pieces entirely for the bass – where his virtuosity isn’t allowed to take over from the act of making music, thanks to an important lesson his father taught him.
“My dad used to say, if you could only play three notes you should try to figure out how you would make valid music from just these three notes,” he says. “And that’s stayed with me because it’s all about sharing the idea that you hear in your head and expressing it clearly.”
With NettWork, he gets to share the ideas in his head with two fellow virtuosi, a prospect he finds thrilling.
“I love being the bass player for other people,” he says. “But I wanted to do something different and tell my own story. It’s all my own compositions and they come from all different periods of my career and all the different experiences and styles of music I’ve enjoyed. There’s Eastern music – I’m a huge fan of Ravi Shankar’s music – and there’s European harmony, U.S. swing and African rhythm, because that’s where it all comes from in the end. It’s a global concept and the challenge for me, and the pleasure, really, the joy, is to bring it all together and make it beautiful.”
From The Herald, June 16, 2015.