Charnett Moffett, RIP

The Lord Discography lists 159 sessions, many of which are from peak “Young Lion” years, when the record industry exploded with hot acoustic jazz made by tender talent.

Charnett Moffett appeared on one song on Branford Marsalis’s first album, Scenes in the City, at the age of sixteen, before reaching immortality a season or two later when recording the inarguable masterpiece of that scene and era, Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes (from the Underground). This famous session remains one of the very best places to hear the mind-bending attack squad of Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts in full regalia — yet the concluding casual yet profound trumpet/bass duet on “Blues,” originally a hidden track, remains an album highlight. Just sensational bass playing: big swing, tone, and vibe.

Moffett is also present on two of my favorite Branford tracks, “Dienda” and “Strike Up the Band,” both from Royal Garden Blues (1986) — “Strike Up the Band” has amazing rhythm section interaction, and Moffett is thankfully up in the mix — and plays on most of Kenny Kirkland’s one official album as a leader, Kenny Kirkland (1991). I got to NYC too late to see much of this era live, but I did manage to take in a few nights of Kirkland, Moffett, and Tain trio at Zinno’s in 1993 or so, a moment that remains a truly cherished memory.

For some, Mulgrew Miller’s Wingspan (1988, with Kenny Garrett, Steve Nelson, and Tony Reedus) remains Miller’s best album. Miller’s fast blues “The Eleventh Hour” is abstract and fierce, the Wayne Shorter/Herbie Hancock modernist tradition taken to a fresh extreme, with Moffett’s secure walking line holding it together just as effectively as Ron Carter in the original iteration. It made all the sense in the world for Moffett and Miller to join the epic Tony Williams acoustic group with Billy Pierce and Wallace Roney, recording the valuable Blue Note LPs Civilization (1986) and Angel Street (1988). Moffett, Miller, and Williams all helped ignite Roney’s debut Verses (1987), an early example of Gary Thomas in notably strong form.

From an entirely different corner, there are those whose sun rises and sets to the soundtrack of Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages (1991), a noisy yet swinging love-in starring Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones. Moffett sounds totally comfortable straddling the generations; the hook-up with Jones on the opening “Promises Kept” is legitimate, and then Moffett takes a killing solo as well.

Moffett came by his avant-garde tendencies honestly. At the age of eight, he was playing second bass in the Moffett Family Jazz Band. His father, drummer Charles Moffett, was an accredited Ornette Coleman alum, and the 1975 recording of this ensemble — comprised mostly of father Moffett’s children –has a true harmolodic spirit. (Personnel according to Lord: Mondre Moffett (tp,flhrn,bar-hrn) Charles Moffett, Jr. (as,ts) Charnett Moffett (b,tp) Patrick McCarthy (b) Charles Moffett (d,perc,tp) Codaryl “Cody” Moffett (perc).)

The family would keep playing music together, and the year before Black Codes, Charnett and Charles Moffett both appeared on Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (1984) a seriously underrated disc with Don Cherry, Grachan Moncur III, and Geri Allen. In time, Ornette Coleman himself would tap Charnett Moffett for Coleman’s final studio statement, the 1996 companion releases Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, featuring a quartet with Geri Allen and Denardo Coleman. I personally have always found these ’96 sessions a bit of a tough listen, but I am glad they are there.

In the ’90s, Moffett played and recorded with the biggest names in the industry: Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Garrett, and many others. At some point Moffett’s work as a sideman started taking a backseat to his aspirations as a leader. His prodigious debut, Net Man (1987), suggested that Moffett saw himself less of a Paul Chambers or a Ron Carter and more like a Marcus Miller or a Victor Bailey. The latter day releases for Motema Music — the latest, Round the World (2020), features folk/rock singer Jana Herzen — are sweet but perhaps a bit unchallenging. The many press photos of Moffett online feature the electric bass just as much as the acoustic.

Charnett Moffett is gone at 54. Far too soon, and there is a dull feeling of unrealized potential. For me, Moffett will always be an important part of the sound of the late ’80s, somebody who could stand up next to Tain and Kenny Kirkland and also deal with a greasy blues. At the moment I’m listening to Donald Brown’s The Sweetest Sounds (1988) with Moffett, Steve Nelson and Alan Dawson. It’s really beautiful.