Sign up for our free newsletter
Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox three times a week.
Charnett Moffett was still a toddler when his family relocated from New York to Oakland in 1970, and he hadn’t graduated from elementary school yet when the musical clan returned to the East Coast. But even at that tender age his extraordinary trajectory was fueled by his experiences in the Bay Area, where music fans got an early glimpse at jazz’s greatest bass prodigy.
In recent decades he’s returned for some of the region’s most memorable gigs, performing several times with McCoy Tyner during the pianist’s epic two-week runs at Yoshi’s and joining avant garde patriarch Ornette Coleman at Davies Symphony Hall for a revelatory 2002 SFJazz Festival concert. Now Moffett, a virtuoso who elevates just about any musical setting on either electric or double bass, is once again calling the Bay Area home.
In his first local appearances since moving to San Francisco last year at the start of the pandemic, Moffett will play a pair of three-night gigs at Yoshi’s, June 23-25 and June 30-July 2, with his wife Jana Herzen, the singer-songwriter, guitarist, and founder of the esteemed indie label Motéma Music. Also available via streaming, those intimate duo shows will take place for patrons in Yoshi’s main restaurant area. On July 25 Moffett will return to Yoshi’s to perform in the renovated club, celebrating the release of his eighth Motema album, “New Love,” with his trio featuring Herzen and drummer Corey Garcia.
Heralded by his jazz peers as one of era’s defining bassists, Moffett is unbound by musical categories, and his creative evolution has proceeded apace since he started working regularly with Herzen. “Working with a vocalist is brilliant,” Moffett said. “Sometimes as a bassist, stuck between the drums and the piano, it can be difficult dealing with the dynamics.”
He cites his experience working with vocalist Melody Gardot as an epiphany that opened his ears to the power of hushed dynamics. Set up close to her piano, he “realized how brilliant it was to hear someone singing at a whisper.” Now, he said, “being around Jana, a singer-songwriter, has inspired me to explore all the possibilities of making music.”
Their longtime friendship blossomed into a romance in the years following the 2016 death of Moffett’s wife of three decades, actress and spoken word artist Angela Moffett. “New Love” reflects “all those influences as I’m continuing to try to discover new things,” said Moffett, 54. “We’re constantly evolving, and that’s what the music is about. It’s about love.”
A deeply spiritual artist who is quick to attribute his musical gifts to God (“or Elohim,” he said), Moffett isn’t given to singing his own praises. As the son of Fort Worth-reared drummer Charles Moffett, a childhood friend of avant garde jazz legend Ornette Coleman, he’s been immersed in music his entire life. In fact, his given name, which is pronounced with a hard “ch,” is a portmanteau of Charles and Ornette.
After his father’s epochal work with Coleman in the mid-1960s, which was documented on two classic Blue Note albums titled, “At the ‘Golden Circle’ Stockholm,” the drummer and educator moved the family to the East Bay. While working a series of public sector jobs, including a stint as principal at Odyssey, the short-lived experimental junior high school that was part of Berkeley’s roiling alternative education movement, Moffett plunged into the Bay Area scene.
“I remember my dad having rehearsals at the house with a big band, maybe 40 or 50 musicians,” Moffett said. “Growing up I was meeting so many different cultures. It was always just a natural way of living. I’m still trying to continue that process.”
At the time he was playing his first instrument, trumpet, and his father regularly brought Charnett and his four siblings over to see music at Keystone Korner, the North Beach club run by Todd Barkan that served as the hub of the West Coast jazz scene from 1972-83.
“I remember meeting Miles Davis at Keystone and he said, ‘Don’t play the trumpet, play the drums like your dad,’” Moffett recalled (in perhaps the first case of a musician quoting Davis without imitating his famously raspy voice). “I saw so many great musicians. I can remember seeing the great McCoy Tyner, who I went on to work with for six or seven years.”
The youngest of his siblings, he followed his older brothers into a family band with Mondre on trumpet, Charles Jr. on tenor sax, Codaryl on drums, and their sister Charisse on vocals. When the bass chair needed an occupant, Moffett’s trumpet career came to an end.
“My dad came home one day with a half-sized bass, a little bigger than a cello, and he showed me: ‘These are the low notes and these are the high notes—find out how many different ways you can make music with this,’” Moffett said. “When the Moffett Family Band went on tour in Japan in 1975 I was the bassist. I got taken into cockpits and met the pilots. Everything about it was amazing.”
Heady stuff for an 8-year-old, and Moffett has never lost that sense of wonder, even as his unworldly facility brought him into jazz’s big leagues well before he reached voting age. When legendary talent scout Art Blakey wanted to recruit the 15-year-old bassist for a resurgent edition of his band, the Jazz Messengers, Moffett had to turn down the offer to stay in school. He made his recording debut the following year on Branford Marsalis’s first album as a leader, 1984’s “Scenes in the City,” and was still too young to hit the road.
At 17 he was studying at Juilliard on scholarship, but the opportunity to tour and record with Wynton Marsalis was irresistible. His commanding work on the trumpeter’s 1985 album “Black Codes (From the Underground)” established Moffett as a major figure, and a contract with Blue Note soon launched him as a recording artist in his own right.
Embracing music as a perpetual search, he’s quick to credit “all of the fabulous musicians I’ve worked with and the fabulous bassists I’ve listened to and tried to emulate,” he said. “Go back to the beginning with Slam Stewart singing with his bass solo, who influenced me when I’m vocalizing. Steve Swallow, Charlie Haden, Jaco, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Eddie Gomez, Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, I can go on and on.”
He’s also happy to let his bass do the talking, and now that he’s back in the Bay Area there should be plenty of opportunities to hear his new tales.