Jazz CD Reviews
Charnett Moffett – The Art of Improvisation – Motéma Music
Published on April 25, 2009
Charnett Moffett – The Art of Improvisation – Motéma Music, MTM-00021 [Release date: May 12, 09], 59:00 ***1/2:
(Charnett Moffett – fretless electric bass, piccolo bass & acoustic bass; Will Calhoun and Eric McPherson – drums; Scott Brown – keyboards; Pat Jones and Steve Barnes – guitar; Robert Joseph Avalon – trumpet; Yunchen Lhamo – vocals on track 6; Angela Moffett – spoken vocals on track 4; Charnett Max Moffett – drums on tracks 4, 8 and 12)
Charnett Moffett is an undisputed bass champion, a musician’s musician who has worked with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Ornette Coleman, and from Art Blakey to Pharoah Sanders. He has led his own sessions since the late 1980s, always with a mission to showcase the diverse possibilities of his multiple bass skills, lacing his work with elements of jazz, fusion, instrumental pop, funk, and other modern genres.
On his newest solo album, The Art of Improvisation, Charnett Moffett continues his quest to couple his virtuosity with his wide-ranging creative muse. The record’s subtitle, A Manifesto for Three Basses, is significant, since this is a recording that utilizes fretless electric bass, piccolo bass, acoustic bass, and myriad effects that manipulate the instruments beyond typical bass sounds. While there are other musicians who contribute muscle, nuances, or assistance, make no mistake, The Art of Improvisation is an exploration of the bass as a lead instrument. If a listener does not take this into account, the excess of bass features might seem relentless.
The Art of Improvisation is an eclectic outing that is a stylistically broad effort, moving from free jazz all the way to psychedelic rock, all of it fitting Moffett’s free-spirited approach.
The album opens with the slightly Middle Eastern "We Pray," where Moffett builds a low-register theme counterpointed by his three layered, overdubbed basses, supported only by the brushwork of Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, who presents complementary accents. The tune was sparked by Moffett’s recent live concerts with Ornette Coleman, who employed three bassists. "We Pray" essentially affords Moffett an opportunity to play his three different instruments to express his varicolored voice. The free jazz segment "Dreams" was also prompted by Coleman’s music, in particular Coleman’s 1961 double quartet blowout release Free Jazz, although "Dreams" is not nearly as dense or harmonically rich as Coleman’s extended opus. The turbulent percussion is provided by Moffett’s son, Charnett Max Moffett, while the spoken word components are recited by Moffett’s sister, actress Angela Moffett, who chants a timely message of the importance of "holding fast to dreams," a quote cited from the Langston Hughes poem that also inspired this tune.
The second composition, "Moses," is a funky contemporary trio number that also has a light Mideast seasoning, distinguished by an open-ended exhibition from pianist Scott Brown and swinging brushwork from drummer Eric McPherson. Here, Moffett uses an ample slap-pop treatment on his fretless electric bass guitar that is reminiscent of Stanley Clarke, and at song’s end Moffett introduces his wah-wah, which has some Jaco Pastorius connotations. The mainstream jazz trio jaunt, "The Awakening," with Brown and guitarist Pat Jones, was also kindled by Clarke, but in a different way. The gamboling exposition applies a round-robin circle concurrence, wherein each artist throws out an idea, while the other two counterbalance the soloist, never straying from the melody, an arrangement similar to the Rite of Strings material Clarke did with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Al Di Meola. Meanwhile, on the jazz-rock duo delineation "Swing Rock," Moffett reconstructs a stronger Pastorius dimension, accompanied only by a plethora of effects and his son’s likeminded drums, crafting a rock-rooted reading that echoes Pastorius’s less restrained and raucous moments.
Calhoun and Moffett again duet on the incendiary "The Story," a knockout motif where Moffett’s bowed electric bass, wah-wah pedal, and the percussive use of his tapped bow on the strings generates a blending of classical and neo-bop characteristics that are adroitly contrasted by some punchy rock-tinged roundabouts. The two-part "Enlightenment" carries on the Calhoun/Moffett interaction. The suite’s first part starts with a limber, contemplative piccolo bass solo presentation, and then advances to an Indian-stimulated overdubbed bass jam. The much longer second section encompasses a concentrated deluge of Moffett’s wah-wah effects, and escalates the ethnic swing by including Calhoun’s precise and aggressive drums and percussion.
Moffett moves from duo to solo on the title track, an excursion on upright bass where he exploits his unconventional, tapping technique adopted from classical music. Moffett raps the strings with his bow down by the bridge, while fingering notes on the bass neck with his left hand, thus achieving a unique, tonal percussive result. Moffett continues his one-person trek on the somewhat raga-tinted "Elements of Life," another workout for his upright bass which displays Moffett’s stunning pizzicato talent, although the cut fails to find a firm melodic footing. "Elements of Life" flows into "Call For Peace," a richer and more Asian-inflected section, where Moffett matches his arco work and wah-wah pedal in a dramatic duet with Tibetan vocalist Yun Chen Lhamo, whose unaffected artlessness gives her phrases, wordless singing, and lyrical vocals an exotic idiosyncrasy.
The collection closes with an electrifying, Hendrixian version of "The Star Spangled Banner," which has become a Moffett concert showstopper and was originally recorded for Moffett’s 1994 release Planet Home. On this translation Moffett’s son does his best Mitch Mitchell imitation, while Moffett plugs in his fretless electric bass, with his distortion pedal set to maximum and wah-wah pedal on full throttle. Moffett has said that this rugged tribute is also an homage, in spirit at least, to Jaco Pastorius, specifically to Pastorius’s take on "America The Beautiful."
The Art of Improvisation reveals that the bass is a tool that has few limitations in the right hands, and throughout these twelve tracks, Charnett Moffett expands the articulation of the bass as wide as what guitarists or keyboardists customarily accomplish. The Art of Improvisation may not appeal to some traditional listeners, but should attract and engage anyone who is interested in what can be done with a bass, some creative chops, and a parcel of imagination.
1. We Pray
3. The Story
5. Elements of Life
6. Call For Peace
7. The Awakening
8. Swing Rock
9. Enlightenment Part I
10. Enlightenment Part II
11. The Art of Improvisation
12. Star Spangled Banner
— Doug Simpson