Charnett Moffett was a great bassist, full stop. “Was” is tough to swallow, in the wake of the news of his death of a heart attack at age 54, and it shines a light on how taken for granted he was, which in turn is why I feel the need to begin with this seemingly-obvious assertion. Maybe it was because of his ubiquity in the 80s and early 90s, maybe because his technical mastery was so ludicrous that one could only laugh at times. In any event, he was an extraordinarily mature, versatile, empathic musician and a vital contributor to the sounds on which my generation of musicians was raised.
Perhaps not surprising given his lineage (being the sun of Charles Moffett, a drummer and important member of is commitment to family was also inspiring, and it manifested in multiple recordings with the Moffett Family Jazz Band, inclusion of his since-departed wife Angela on voice and spoken word on several of his recordings, and his more recent collaborations with singer/songwriter/guitarist Jana Herzen, to whom he was married at the time of his passing.
As I was organizing this list (which, as with all such lists, is based on personal experiences and not any claim of “greatness” or “importance” relative to others), it was disarming to see how many recordings I wanted to put on this list and couldn’t find room for. In that spirit (and in the spirit of encouraging others to dig into his work) I focused on easily-available music, though I could have made another list of similarly wonderful but out-of-print albums by Charnett himself and others including Ornette Coleman, Donald Brown, John Stubblefield, Tony Reedus, and especially James Williams (“Meet the Magical Trio” is one of the great trio albums of the last 40 years).
1 ) “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” from Black Codes (from the Underground) by Wynton Marsalis (1985)
For many musicians of my generation this album is a real landmark, and for good reason. The rhythm section of Charnett, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff “Tain” Watts on this track and throughout the album sounds as fresh today as when it changed the landscape nearly 40 years ago.
2 ) “The Slump” from Civilization by Tony Williams (1986)
Charnett holds down the tricky bass chair in the first album by the heralded edition of the Tony Williams Quintet that featured Wallace Roney, Billy Pierce, and Mulgrew Miller (whose modern classic album “Wingspan” could easily have landed on this list). This swinging track features a powerful solo from Charnett.
3 ) “One Left Over” from Net Man (1987)
Look past the 80s synths (if you’re an acoustic music purist, it might take a minute) and dig into the exceptionally melodic fretless electric bass work throughout this gorgeous performance.
4 ) “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” from I Remember by Dianne Reeves (1988)
When I was a teenager just starting to learn standards, I found this song and a friend played this recording for me, opening with Charnett’s bass presenting a big, deep “hello” to begin the track. I still can’t get enough of the way he (along with rhythm section mates Donald Brown and Marvin “Smitty” Smith) supports Dianne’s soulful vocals and gnarly solos by Bobby Hutcherson and Greg Osby
5 ) “As We Used to Sing” from Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock (1991)
This is a desert island record for me. Though this track, which features super-intense soloing by Sharrock on guitar and Pharoah Sanders on tenor, doesn’t have a bass solo, listening to Charnett push and prod alongside Elvin Jones on drums throughout this driving waltz is an utter delight.
6 ) “Truth” from A Look Inside by Kenny Drew Jr. (1992)
I picked this album up at “Compact Disc World” in a Jersey strip mall in 1992, days after hearing Charnett and his brother Codaryl (Cody) accompanying Kenny Drew Jr. (one of the great, underappreciated pianists of his generation, a frequent collaborator with Charnett and Cody, and another who left us too soon) at Fat Tuesday’s in NYC, a really mind-blowing experience. I did not expect to find this solo bass track on there, and I don’t think I can count high enough to measure how many times I listened to it.
7 ) “A Time for Love” from Triology by Kenny Garrett (1994)
Charnett mans the bottom end on some of Kenny Garrett’s most important records, such as “Black Hope” and “African Exchange Student,” but I chose this one (in a trio with Brian Blade) in spite of the absence of bass soloing, to demonstrate how in spite of his prodigious chops, he was able to play with exceptional sensitivity, as here in the challenging position of supporting a ballad performance with no other chordal instruments.
8 ) “Manalyuca” from Land of Giants by McCoy Tyner (2002)
A live rerecording of the 1970s Tyner classic “Sama Layuca,” this track is delightfully upbeat and energetic, not surprising given the band including McCoy, Bobby Hutcherson, and Eric Harland. We also get to hear Charnett take out the bow.
9 ) “Lil’ Darlin’” from Friends by Stanley Jordan (2012)
The first time I ever heard Charnett on a record was guitarist Stanley Jordan’s version of “Freddie Freeloader” (probably 2 years before I even knew it was a Miles Davis tune) and soon after I heard them perform together in a trio with drummer Kenwood Dennard. This restrained, swinging performance features that trio augmented by the tasteful guitar work of Bucky Pizzarelli.
10 ) “Come and Play” from Music From Our Soul (2015)
I could easily do a top 10 list of fast swing tunes whose heartbeats depend on Charnett’s walking bass. This one features a trio with Cyrus Chestnut (Nutman meets Nettman!) on piano and Victor Lewis (who shares rhythm section duties with Charnett on many recordings with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet) and for the first half or so it’s a typical burner. Then we start to hear some of Charnett’s more unique upright bass techniques. I won’t elaborate, lest I ruin the drama – listen for yourself.