Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Charnett Moffett's "Spirit of Sound"

I got to see Charnett Moffett play right after I moved to Texas in 1978. It was quite extraordinary, and it happened this way: My buddies and I used to go to  spot on Lemmon Avenue called the Recovery Room, where Miles Davis' '50s pianist Red Garland would sometimes sit in with the Marchel Ivery Quartet. One night, while the band was on break, I was standing out in the parking lot when a van rolled up, emblazoned "Moffett Family Band, Fort Worth, Texas" on the side.

Out climbed Charles Moffett, who'd been Ornette Coleman's drummer from 1962 to 1966, and three of his sons. Charles Jr. played tenor and Codaryl played drums; they were teenagers. Charnett, who was 12, seemed barely tall enough to carry his double bass, let alone play it. The three brothers got up on the stand and blew the roof off the house with blazing, '60-style "fire music." People's jaws were still hanging when they got back in the van and headed back down I-30 to Fort Worth.

In the late '80s, I started seeing Charnett's name appearing on records. He was in Wynton Marsalis' band, recorded for Blue Note as a leader and sideman, even got to play with Ornette on his 1996 Sound Museum albums. He's on one of my favorite records of the '90s: Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages. He even had some crossover pop success in (where else?) Japan. More recently, he's been a member of Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun's jazz trio, and recorded a series of CDs for Motema Music, a label run by singer-songwriter-guitarist Jana Herzen (with whom he's recorded in a duo setting).

With Spirit of Sound, Moffett comes full circle in a way, performing in the company of his son, drummer Charnett "Max" Moffett; his daughter, vocalist Amareia Moffett; and his wife Angela Moffett, who performs spoken word and plays tamboura. He also receives assistance from the rest of the Motema roster: reedman Oran Etkin, pianist Marc Cary, percussionist Babatunde Lea, vocalist Tessa Souter, and label boss Herzen.

The arrangements on Spirit of Sound are orchestrated by the leader, who overdubs upright acoustic, fretless electric, and piccolo basses. The tunes, with the exception of Ornette's "Lonely Woman," are original and East Indian-flavored. Moffett's a virtuoso player, and his instrumental flair is highlighted throughout, but the result is a lot easier for the casual listener to hear than an album of bass solos would have been -- although he's got one of those, too, also on Motema: The Bridge (Solo Bass Works). It's a long way from the music I heard him making with his brothers, all those years ago, but it's engaging and accessible in a way that invites repeated listenings. If jazz radio still existed in this country, it could even be (to steal a phrase from Willie the Shake) "a palpable hit."


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