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The son of free jazz drummer Charles Moffett, bassist Charnett Moffett began on his instrument at age 8…for the simple reason that the Family Band needed a bass player. At 16 he began playing in Wynton Marsalis‘s first band, then moved on to work with Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Jordan, Ornette Coleman and countless others. In addition to his in-demand freelance work, Moffett has established himself as a leader; last week he released his tenth album, the innovative Art of Improvisation. He’s currently touring in support of the disc and will appear tomorrow night at Blues Alley in a trio with pianist Stephen Scott and drummer Will Calhoun.
Moffett talked to me this weekend while waiting to catch a plane; we discussed his musical family ties, the new album, and his approach to music in general.
Washington City Paper: You started off in your family band, led by your father—who’s mostly known as an avant-garde player—but you’ve played every style under the sun. How’d that happen?
Charnett Moffett: I grew up in a musical family, where we were introduced and exposed to all kinds of music. Although my father was largely known for his work with Ornette Coleman—whom I was partially named after and also played nine years with—he had a great appreciation for John Phillip Sousa, blues music, sounds of all sorts. And he did play avant-garde free jazz, but he also played rhythm & blues, with people like King Curtis. So growing up in an environment like this really heightened my own development. I came to understand that no matter what type of music you’re playing, there’s only 12 notes, and the same 12 notes are being utilized in classical, country & western, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, or whatever. So I’ve always had an open mind, and I’ve tried to incorporate many different styles into the expression of a creative idea in the moment.
WCP: So it really is part of your musical upbringing, then, to run the gamut.
CM: It really is exciting to play that way, not really locked into one thing. That’s the great thing about music: It brings people together from all different cultures and walks of life, if only for a short period of time.
WCP: Even so, I don’t think you’ve ever done a record with quite the stylistic breadth that The Art of Improvisation has. Was it a deliberate attempt to sum up all you’ve done so far?
CM: Well, not to sum up everything I’ve done—I’m just getting started! What I wanted to really capitalize on is the improvisational things that take place during the performance. I’ve found that the most exciting part is the improvised part, where each artist gets to actually express their voice, and gets to make a contribution from their position. And working in [Ornette Coleman’s] harmolodic concept, which has now evolved into “sound grammar,” allows many artists to play a lead and also accompany the other musicians simultaneously. And you don’t always have to follow the traditional structures or even the structures in the theme: you can create the form spontaneously as you improvise. Now you have to have good musicians in order to make cohesive music together, and they have to be sensitive enough to follow you from their position.
WCP: You use three separate basses on the record—upright acoustic, fretless electric, and piccolo. What are the different uses for these?
CM: Well, the acoustic was where I started. But I was out touring with Stanley Jordan several years ago, and we were watching some video footage of Jimi Hendrix. And I was just thinking “Wow, I’d like to try some of that on the bass!” I was heavily influenced by that. Also, I was always interested in people like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius; I used to live in Oakland, California, where I was introduced to music like Graham Central Station—the funkier stuff.
The piccolo bass is fairly similar to the upright, it’s the basic notes of the bass but tuned an octave higher. And I experimented with different tunings, and would hang out with great guitarists like Stanley Jordan and that would influence me on the piccolo bass. I’m also definitely influenced by Ravi Shankar.
So I wanted to incorporate all of these things into a piece and move them in and out based on a piece’s ideas. One thing I learned from Ornette is that our brain operates as a machine, and that the machine has its limitations—but within those parameters, there are things that can be done that will expand the possibilities of the mind creatively.
WCP: On the subject of Jimi Hendrix, is your interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner” on The Art of Improvisation connected with his famous one?
CM: Not necessarily. It was what you heard at the baseball game and on TV, et cetera, and for me it got to be “Oh, the National Anthem is on. Let’s check out this interpretation.” So I really just fell in love with the song.
I had originally recorded “The Star Spangled Banner” on the Planet Home CD in 1994, on my double bass. But this is the first time I had an opportunity to perform it on my fretless bass. That would be a perfect example of where we played the theme, but took off in an improvisation from it. The whole album was basically constructed that way, because I feel that although the most interesting moments usually happen in the improvisation rather than in the composition, the truth is that when you are improvising you are composing anyway. It’s just a question of whether you fix the idea down when you compose it.
WCP: Is that easier to do with original tunes? In other words, when you compose a piece do you consciously structure it to give you a good jumping-off point for improvisation?
CM: Well, I think it’s all about the idea, really: whatever creative idea you wish to express to the public. You can’t really plan the way an improvisation is gonna go, but you can express an emotion that you want to share with people, and that’s usually set up by the melody and the piece before you improvise, and—to return to the question about the three basses—it’s determined by what instrument I want to use to shape the composition, which also helps determine the direction of the improvisation being played. For example, on the first piece on the album, “We Pray,” there’s three basses on that. I wanted to show audiences how the music can work in a not-so-freeform way, but still be in an organic way even with the form and the solo and even overdubs.
WCP: Was there a connection between your album title and that of Ornette Coleman’s The Art of the Improvisers?
CM: (chuckles) It’s funny that that happened! I wasn’t consciously thinking of that when I thought of the album. It was something that just ended up being a coincidence.
WCP: Back to those different basses you use. You talked about the effects and distortion, but that largely happens on your acoustic upright, not the fretless as you’d expect. What does the acoustic give you in terms of effects that the electric doesn’t?
CM: Well, in that case, I specifically wanted to show the audience how you can take an instrument out of its natural form and still use it as a voice to express whatever you want to express. Just because you’re playing an acoustic bass doesn’t mean you have to think about it only in the conventions of an acoustic bass! You can be very futuristic, provided you have a solid thought process. You can hear that particularly on the title track to The Art of Improvisation, which is a solo track.
We live in a very sophisticated modern world now, where the technology is always evolving; why not take advantage of that fact to demonstrate the possible range of colors and emotions? To not do so would be like a painter choosing to paint only in black and white. As artists I feel like it’s our responsibility to extend the level of the art and the way that the art is made.
And now that the acoustic is sounding more like an electric, the electric is sounding more like a voice on the guitar. I have something that I call the bass-wah, which is when I bow an upright bass and run it through a wah-wah pedal. I can more or less emulate the voice, and also complement a singer as well as be a singer myself through that technique, as I do on a piece called “Call for Peace,” on which I worked with the Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo.
WCP: You also work with your son, Charnett Max Moffett, who’s a drummer. Are we seeing a new generation of the Moffett Family Band?
CM: It’s not something that was planned. You know, I grew up in that heavily musical environment, and I guess in those circumstances you can’t help but love music—and I guess that I’ve passed that down to my own children, who are now young adults themselves. It’s not something that you can force on anyone; one has to want to do this. Because the whole thing about it is that you have to have fun.
You know, I began playing when I was 8 years of age; I’ll be 42 years of age this summer. I’ve been doing this for so long, and yet in so many ways it seems like I’ve hardly begun; music is keeping me healthy and keeping me young.