Charnett Moffett

Charnett Moffett started young. His father, revered jazz drummer Charles Moffett Sr., presided over an extraordinary musical family, and Charnett was only seven years old when he started recording and touring with the Moffett Family Band. After a stint at the Juilliard School of Music, Moffett joined trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s acclaimed quintet in 1983, when he was just 16.

His stellar work on such albums as Black Codes (From the Underground) led to gigs with saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Ornette Coleman, vocalists Dianne Reeves and Harry Connick Jr., pianist Herbie Hancock, and drummer Tony Williams, and many others. Little surprise he was hired by the jazz elite, as his walking lines are potent and personal, at once harmonically deep and rhythmically diverse; additionally, he consistently delivers solos that are intricate, imaginative, and technically flamboyant to the point that they captivate jazz experts and neophytes alike.

For the Love of Peace, his eighth record as a leader, finds Charnett, now 37, again nestled in his family’s bosom, playing alongside both his brothers (drummer Codaryl and trumpeter Mondre) and sisters (vocalists Angela and Charsse). Warm, personal vibes permeate the session, a spiritual outing comprising 14 original compositions with titles such as “Mercy and Grace,” “I Love the Lord,” and “Prayer.” Way out in front of the mix, Moffett’s double-stop-and-harmonic-laden ostinatos are Jimmy Garrison-esque, while his melodic solos recall Ron Carter. Then there’s the title cut, an unaccompanied tour de force that tells you everything you need to know about this remarkable talent.

What was it like playing with your family as a child?
My Pops had a unique way of teaching music. Even if you only knew how to play three notes, you had to figure out how many different ways to play those three notes. As opposed to making mistakes on what you don’t know, you should perfect what you do know. At that point, I was playing strictly off the sound—and the sound is the most important thing, because when you connect with a human being, they only know what they hear, what they feel. It’s great to be able to analyze your theory and technique, but it’s most important to connect with your audience.

So you feel that when you’re first learning the instrument, even though it’s important to work on technique, you should focus on getting inside the notes and the chord changes?
Exactly. The whole point of playing music is the emotional content. To do that, you have to allow yourself to be at one with the instrument. That way, you can control the instrument. Remember, it’s a machine—it doesn’t know what note you’re playing. Your ear and your head tell you that. No matter what you’re playing—be it the blues, country & western, or classical—you need to have control of the instrument. Also, it’s important to know what you sound like as you develop that control. Can someone identify who you are? That’s why somebody like Charles Mingus was so great: the way he sounds on his instrument, he sounds like himself. Even on the electric bass, guys like Stanley Clarke or Larry Graham have their own sound.

How did you go about getting control of your instrument and developing your own sound?
The more you practice your instrument, the more you become at one with it. That way, you can constantly evolve with it. It’s like a relationship: You get acquainted with each other. You figure out what you can and can’t do. And you’re not going to believe this, but in spite of how much I work, I practice more now than I ever have, even than when I was at Juilliard. Because of that, I’m discovering new ways to play. Even though I’ve been playing for almost 30 years, in some ways, I’m just now learning how to play the bass correctly. I’m learning how to utilize the sound of the instrument to its fullest value. You don’t have to do anything new to make that happen—it could just be practicing your scales, or using your bow to do long tones. Doing simple things like that, you can refine your technique.

What about electric bass?
On electric, I think about different ways of preparing myself, because I’m dealing with a different set of muscles. The instrument is going across my body, rather than being in the stand-up position, and I have to play more with the tips of my fingers. On acoustic, it’s a totally different part of the finger. You have different calluses that develop for each instrument, and you have to be sensitive to that. You have to adjust your muscles so you can make the transition. The most important thing is always to stay loose and relaxed. Never feel that you have to force something. If you’re feeling tight when you practice, stop for a while, because you shouldn’t be uncomfortable when you’re playing. That inhibits your ability to express yourself creatively.

You and your brother Cody have a unique bass-drums hookup.
The chemistry is always different with different drummers, but when you play with someone for most of your life, that chemistry is going to be very special. And that’s not only the case with Cody, but with the rest of my family, too. The great thing about making music with your family is that you really know them, and you really know how to get the best results. So when I did For the Love of Peace and got to work with the family again, it allowed me to write numbers designed specifically for Cody’s playing.

Let’s talk about the title cut. What was your thinking in doing an unaccompanied bass piece, and what was going through your head as you were preparing and recording it?
Really, it’s just a song. It’s a message, like the entire record. I was trying to establish a pleasant atmosphere, but I was also trying to make sure I executed the parts correctly. There are specific improvised sections, and there are also specific composed sections, where the melody repeats itself. I think listeners these days are intelligent enough to hear the difference. You’re dealing with more sophisticated audiences now. Wise ears will be able to clue in to what I’m trying to accomplish, to what I’m trying to share.

Finally, if somebody came to you and asked for a lesson—and they could take only one lesson—what would you tell them?
I’d tell them to figure out what their roots are; if you know your roots, you have a starting point. I’d tell them that music is a part of our lives—for that matter, it is our lives. You shouldn’t be interested in playing just for the glitter. You should develop your music in as many different creative capacities as possible.