REVIEW: Charnett Moffett Solo at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival

Charnett Moffett in Bremen 2014
Photo Credit: Nigel Slee

Charnett Moffett Solo
(Le Club at L'Astral, 2014 Montreeal Jazz Festival. Review by Sebastian Scotney) 

“You may know a man by the company he keeps” says the proverb. Here's some of the company New York - born bassist Charnett Moffett has kept. Among his erstwhile long-term employers are Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner and Tony Williams...

But, as Goethe said, "It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself." At a solo bass recital, there is no company for the performer, except the expectant audience and what Louis Armstrong called 'the band in my head', there is definitely nowhere to hide. What was remarkable was about Charnett Moffett's concert at the Club venue at the Montreal Jazz Festival was the variety, vitality and sheer joy which the 47-year old virtuoso brought to the task. The album The Bridge (Motema, recorded end-2011) contains much of the material he played, but this live experience was revelatory.

If I have to pick one moment which stays in the mind (I don't, there were many), it was his performance of Miles Davis All Blues. Moffett appeared to turn himself into two very different characters, who then alternate roles. There's a serious responsible one, who lays down time, enjoys the deep resonances. And then, higher in the instrument's register - or lower down the fingerboard, you meet a mischievous demon taking sheer pleasure in undoing the work of the other, making a more pinched and whiney sound. Seen live, it's like a wordless version of a melodrama, I thought of the different voices in Schubert's Erlkoenig (that's enough pretentious Goethe references, Ed.)

One can only marvel at the degree of fore-thought that has gone into this programme, at how a lifetime spent at the back of the bandstand prepares an artist to step forward and show his character in full. There was always a narrative, never a moment of doubt as to that decisive moment when a piece has ended.

The strength, the irresistibillity of Moffett's assertion of musical time is extraordinary. The second half opener was McCoy Tyner's Walk Spirit Talk Spirit, sound as big as a house, the Stentorian voice in all its glory. Sting's Fragile was very different, in free time, but still irresistibly communicative, letting the instrument really speak, giving the sound its half-life before moving on.

If you have the sense that a bass recital is a limited form, think again. Moffett has all kinds of special effects, some involving pedals, loops, distortion, but mostly of the kind which show a lifetime of building his craft. There are thumb-slaps, there is also an adapted drum technique, a col legno multiple bounce roll, which I've never heard any other bassist control so effectively. It led to a varied experience where one never felt the need for another performer.

At a huge jazz festival, there is too much seriousness, too much joyless virtuosity, people playing for the sake of it. But beyond technique, beyond mere presence onstage there is also joy, and that is what Charnett Moffett brought to Montreal last night.

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