Saturday, August 7, 2010

Going the Distance: Charnett Moffett's Treasure

The electric bass has always had a peculiar place in the history of jazz. To the purists, it’s sacrilegious to consider anything “non-acoustic” as having a place on the bandstand. Miles Davis changed all that in the late '60s after seeing Sly & the Family Stone play their heavy funk/rock mix in performance. Davis was the first musician, in fact, to welcome the electric bass into the jazz world to spite the critics and his fellow players. In doing so, he opened the door to the new sounds of “fusion”: incorporating rock, funk and jazz into the idiom. For young electric bass players who were attracted to the new sound, a whole world of opportunity was laid out. Consequently they had legitimate reasons to play with the best jazz artists willing to include them in the rhythm section. Stanley Clarke, Dave Holland, John Lee and the one and only Jaco Pastorius inspired a whole generation.

Charnett Moffett, who comes from a musical family in New York, first played acoustic bass in his father’s band. By the time he was 16, he played with Wynton Marsalis’s small groups and took up the electric bass. He only released a few albums under his leadership, but he proved to many in the musical community that he was a solid musician. Now 43, Moffett has just released a new record called Treasure a superb musical excursion featuring Moffett on acoustic bass, electric bass, and the short-scale “piccolo” bass: instruments with a particularily distinct ambience and texture. Inspired by the sounds that emanate from the streets of NYC, Moffett goes the musical distance by layering his compositions with tabla, tambura, bass clarinet and drums. Moffett has successfully “fused” the flavours together to create an album that is at once accessible, funky and cosmic in its delivery.

The record opens with “Swing Street” a slightly edgy groove with layers of bass clarinet played by Oran Etkin sweeping over the steady drone of the tambura played by his sister Angela Moffett. Guitarist Stanley Jordan, himself a virtuoso, appears on two tracks, “The Celebration” and “The Thing of Swing”; compositions that are fresh for their subtle textures and infectious beats. But as we go through the album the sounds change much like they would if you were moving through a music school: ensemble playing gives way to solos and duets.“Down Up Blues” features electric bass, drums, tambura and didgeridoo, played by Jana Herzen. “Say La La” completes the trip from Australia to India with the drone of the tambura-supporting sitar, acoustic bass and the Kugo harp, also known as the Angular harp invented in Iraq nearly 2,000 years ago. This track invokes the East/West fusion group, Shakti with John McLaughlin and their beautifully exotic sounds. Charnett Moffett's new work is simply a treasure trove.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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