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Charnett Moffett, expansive bassist who could challenge legends, dies at 54

Jazz bassist Charnett Moffett.
Courtesy of the artist
Jazz bassist Charnett Moffett.

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. The news was confirmed by his publicist, Lydia Liebman; Moffett was with his wife and musical collaborator Jana Herzen at the time.

Bass player Charnett Moffett,  performing in 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl in LA.
Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Bass player Charnett Moffett, performing in 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl in LA.

During the '80s and '90s, it seemed as if Moffett was everywhere in the jazz scene, recording with then-up-and-comers like Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Stanley Jordan, and was working with legends like Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Sharrock and Tony Williams. It seemed as if every Tuesday, what used to be record release day, brought forth new recordings that were elevated by Moffett's big, elastic tone and his acute rhythmic sensibility. He could elevate a tune without soloing on it; his ability to intertwine with drummers and pianists created flexible yet sturdy foundations for soloists to drive the music in whatever direction he or she pleased. And this ubiquity and dynamic excellence obscured Moffett's youth. When he played on Branford Marsalis' debut 1983 recording, Scenes in the City, the bassist was 16 years old.

"The family is in shock and devastated, but also thankful that he is released from the intense pain [of a Trigeminal Neuralgia diagnosis], and we invite all his fans and loved ones to celebrate his indomitable, vastly creative, high flying and joyful spirit," the family writes in a statement.

Moffett was born into a musical family in New York City: He is the son of drummer Charles Moffett Sr., who played on the pivotal Ornette Coleman collection At the Golden Circle Stockholm (Blue Note), which was released on two volumes in 1966. The bassist was born the following year – his name is a contraction of the first names of his father and Coleman. When Charnett was eight, he toured internationally with his family's band.

Moffett's work on Wynton Marsalis' superb 1985 recording, Black Codes from the Underground, is an excellent showcase of his range. On "For Wee Folks," he works deftly with pianist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts to create a lithe rhythmic floor. Then, a few tracks later on "Blues," Moffett duets with the leader, pushing and prodding him.

A few years later, he holds his own amid esteemed elders on "Promises Kept" from Ask the Ages, with Sharrock, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Elvin Jones. As is often the case with drummers and bassists, Moffett was always so in-demand that he (too) infrequently led his own dates. But when he did, they were masterful; on his debut as a leader, Net Man (Blue Note), he showed his expansive scope.

Perhaps his signature achievement as a leader 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 both as a leader and as a sideman, often with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, but the scene had changed due in part to his impact. When Moffett arrived, jazz was Balkanizing into contentious camps, and terms like "the Jazz Wars" were used without irony. Moffett ignored the borders and became a one-man demilitarized zone, working in all styles – acoustic, electric, mainstream and avant-garde – and bringing elements of world music into his sound. Through the '90s and into the new millennium, musicians and the hierarchy of jazz institutions came around to his perspective: music is perhaps best appreciated and participated in without preconceived definitions.

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Martin Johnson