French-Cameroonian bassist Étienne Mbappé and his band reminded a packed crowd at the 606 Club in Chelsea of the positive healing power of great music on a night when emotions ran high - following the terrorist attacks in his home city of Paris - and the quality of the music ran even higher.
The 606 Club used to be rather tucked away in the salubrious suburbs of Chelsea, accessible only by bus. Now, since the opening of Imperial Wharf station, it’s much easier for jazz fans from across London to get to it. The festival had brought many more punters than normal for a Thursday to Chelsea, and they added to the sense of occasion.
Mbappé is a player I’ve seen backing numerous quality musicians, but never on his own terms. Here, he was backed by a seven-piece band he’d put together only this year. The band - all seven of them squeezed onto the 606 Club’s tiny stage - demonstrated near flawless group playing from the get-go that was fantastic to see close up.
Mbappé’s musical output is an intriguing mix of jazz, african, funk and rock sensibilities with, on numerous occasions, forays into the sounds and rhythms of the souks of the Maghreb. Not my absolute favourite style of jazz, but it was certainly adventurous enough for a Thursday festival gig and was well worth seeing. He and the band hit the ground running with three complex, fast-paced tracks before stopping to do the usual band introductions. Not surprisingly for a bassist, groove is central to Mbappé’s composition and group management and the set was overflowing with it.
He was content for much of the time to sit in the pocket and let his brass duo of Arno de Casanove (tr.) and Hervé Gourdikian (sax) pump out some compelling melodies in unison, recalling Michael and Randy Brecker in their Brecker Brothers days. The violin stylings of Christophe Cravero added some useful tonal colour to the ensemble, and his playing - alongside the brass and bass - brought to mind Jean-Luc Ponty, one of my favourite fusion players.
Mbappé and his band had arrived at the venue straight from Paris and naturally he addressed the terrible issues that occurred in Paris the Friday before. At times struggling with both his English and his emotions, he dedicated the ballad How Near, How Far to "all his friends in Paris." The track - inspired he said by the experiences of migrants everywhere, but particularly in the Mediterranean - was appropriately powerful and poignant, expressing in music what words often cannot do. The audience were pin-drop silent while he explained this. There was a lot of love in the room for this track and for the band.
Mbappé also remarked that it was not easy, given recent events, to be fronting a band named The Prophets, but he was clearly very proud to be playing with these musicians. The audience responded with sympathetic cheers and encouraging shouts in French to make the band feel at home, amongst friends. A nice touch.
Most of the tracks over both sets were master classes in tight, high-intensity group playing, with frequent ninety-degree turns of rhythm, volume and mood that kept feet tapping and audience members uncertain as to when to applaud. Particularly enjoyable was the frenetic ending to the fifth track which was as spectacular a musical finish as the most complicated of dismounts from the gymnast’s beam. Minor reviewer complaint - many of the tracks went unnamed.
Mbappé's playing was effortless and frenetic. His black silk be-gloved fingers - he wears them, apparently, to reduce the impact of sweat on the strings and his sound, and it’s become his trade mark, in a way, by default; no reviewer can resist referring to them (!) - were a blur on many of his solos, each of which was executed flawlessly. With the bass’s low-end turned up a little too high for such a small, low-ceilinged venue, the aluminium air-conditioning pipes were buzzing intensely. That was, however, a minor irritant - the sound produced by the band was as juicy and well-cooked as the steak enjoyed by the customer seated behind me.
This was an ‘up’ gig - emotional, clearly, but all about the uplifting power of great music to transport players and audience away from their thoughts through a reverie of hard pulsing brass chops, fizzing drums and groove by the yard. It bought out a big crowd - the bar was packed with punters straining for a glimpse around the venue’s pillars - with a good number of London’s Cameroonian community evidently out in support judging by the loud conversation in the bar. Gary Husband - a bandmate of Mbappe’s in a previous incarnation of John McLaughlin’s Fourth Dimension - was also there to lend his support for his friend’s first solo gig in London. For this reviewer, it’s a tick-mark indicating top quality music when Husband attends any gig; this gig showed that Mbappé commands attention both as a bassist and a composer now in his own right.
A very positive evening showcasing what the London Jazz Festival should be all about. In light of the lack of respect for jazz audiences demonstrated by Cassandra Wilson earlier in the week, reported elsewhere on this website, here were musicians who turned up on time, played a two-hour set and sent punters away with good vibes and great memories.
Full marks, too, to the 606 Club for staying true to its principles as a dedicated jazz club and eatery. The exposed wires, slightly uncomfortable seating, limited views from the bar and lack of space might seem, on the face of it, to be downsides. Far from it - these are attractions, the little idiosyncrasies which reinforce the impression of a club and staff dedicated to live jazz and a great evening out for the punter. I won’t leave it so long, next time, to go again.