Charnett Moffett, expansive bassist who could defy legends, dies at 54
Bassist Charnett Moffett, a stylistically agnostic staple of the jazz scene since the ’80s, died last week on April 12 at Stanford University Hospital following a heart attack. He was 54 years old. The news was confirmed by his publicist, Lydia Liebman; Moffett was with his wife and musical collaborator Jana Herzen at the time.
During the 80s and 90s, it seemed like Moffett was all over the jazz scene, recording with then-promising artists like Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Stanley Jordan, and working with legends like Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Sharrock and Tony Williams. It was as if every Tuesday, which was once record release day, brought new recordings that were enhanced by Moffett’s powerful, springy tone and acute rhythmic sensitivity. He could elevate a track without soloing it; his ability to intertwine with drummers and pianists created a flexible yet solid foundation for soloists to drive the music in any direction he or she wanted. And that ubiquity and dynamic excellence clouded Moffett’s youth. When he played on Branford Marsalis’ first recording in 1983, Scenes in the citythe bassist was 16 years old.
“The family are shocked and devastated, but also grateful that he is free from the intense pain [of a Trigeminal Neuralgia diagnosis]and we invite all of his fans and loved ones to celebrate his indomitable, immensely creative, high-flying and joyful spirit,” the family wrote in a statement.
Moffett was born into a musical family in New York: he is the son of drummer Charles Moffett Sr., who played on Ornette Coleman’s crucial collection. At the Golden Circle in Stockholm (Blue Note), released in two volumes in 1966. The bassist was born the following year – his name is a contraction of his father’s and Coleman’s first names. When Charnett was eight, he toured internationally with his family’s band.
Moffett’s work on Wynton Marsalis’ superb 1985 recording, The black codes of the metro, is an excellent showcase of its range. On “For Wee Folks”, he works skillfully with pianist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts to create a flexible rhythmic ground. Then, a few tracks later on “Blues,” Moffett duets with the frontman, pushing and shoving him.
A few years later, he stood out among esteemed alumni on “Promises Kept” by ask the ages, featuring Sharrock, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Elvin Jones. As is often the case with drummers and bassists, Moffett has always been in such high demand that he (too) rarely ran his own dates. But when he did, they were masterful; for his debut as a leader, neat man (Blue Note), he showed his expansive scope.
Perhaps his standout achievement as a frontman was his solo rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which pays homage to Jimi Hendrix’s version.
Throughout the 2000s, Moffett continued to make stellar music as both a frontman and a sideman, often with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, but the scene had changed in part because of his impact. When Moffett arrived, jazz was balkanizing into contentious camps, and terms like “jazz war” were used without irony. Moffett ignored boundaries and became a one-man DMZ, working across all styles – acoustic, electric, mainstream and avant-garde – and bringing elements of world music into his sound. During the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, musicians and the hierarchy of jazz institutions rallied around his view that music is perhaps best enjoyed and practiced without preconceived definitions.