Etienne Mbappe: How Near How Far
With a rich, singing tone and an unerring gift for melody, bassist Etienne Mbappé imparts even the most demanding musical contexts with a grace, warmth, and humanity that transcends boundaries, genres, and languages. Whether on a fretted and fretless instrument, in technically rigorous fusion or plaintive song-based settings, Mbappé elevates and enriches the ensemble while leaving his own indelible sonic imprint. His sensibilities have made him much in-demand as a sideman and collaborator, leading to high-profile recordings and performances as a member of John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension and the Ringers (with Jimmy Herring, Wayne Krantz, Michael Landau, and Gary Novak), plus sideman appearances with such artists Joe Zawinul, Manu Dibango, Robben Ford, Slif Keita, Ray Charles, Steps Ahead, and saxophonist Bill Evans.
How Near How Far (available through Abstract Logix) is Mbappé’s fourth solo recording, and a pivotal one on several levels. While his previous three albums Mislya (2004), Su La Take (2008), and Pater Noster (2013) focused on his vocal material, How Near How Far is Mbappé’s first to concentrate primarily on instrumental ideas. Even more importantly, it marks the debut of his new band the Prophets – consisting of Mbappé alongside Christophe Cravéro (acoustic and electric piano), Anthony Jambon (guitars), Clément Janinet (violin), Arno de Casanove (trumpet, flugelhorn), Hervé Gourdikian (tenor saxophone), and longtime collaborator Nicholas Viccaro (drums, percussion).
“The concept of the Prophets,” Mbappé explains, “is a nod to visionaries like Miles, Coltrane, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Ravi Shankar, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Charlie Parker among others. We seek to extend their vision and imagine a music where there are no borders and no musical barriers. With the Prophets, I decided to come back to instrumental music…I wanted to get away from the strict song format – verse, bridge, chorus – and focus more on the music itself.”
With the unusual trumpet/tenor/violin frontline leading the way, the Prophets explore eleven Mbappé originals, which touch on a number of international traditions while bridging cultural divides via deft musicianship and a thoughtful, conversational improvisational approach. “I did not want to have a traditional sax, trombone and trumpet setup in mind,” Mbappé continues. “I knew the violin in the middle would add a unique, distinctive and unusual sound…the violin brings the North African and Middle Eastern flavors to the music.”
The worldly sensibilities that underpin Mbappé’s music stem from his upbringing in the Republic of Cameroon in West Central Africa – a musically and linguistically rich land where more than 1700 linguistic variants are spoken. He was raised in a community where the old ways of passing down knowledge and traditions were still very much alive. “We had no music schools there,” he recalls. “If you wanted to learn something, you sought out a master and studied and observed them.” In 1978, when he was fourteen, he moved to France. Upon arrival he studied classical guitar and double bass in a more formal setting before embarking on his career as a professional musician that quickly saw him rise to prominence due to his versatility, empathy, impressive technique, and gracious, open-minded personality. He remains based in Paris to this day.
While the Prophets are his latest undertaking, their music speaks to the depth of Etienne’s own experiences. “Nicolas Viccaro is a drummer that I have been playing with for a few years,” Mbappé says. “I took him to Africa with me many times and he understands my roots and rhythms of my culture. Clément Janinet on violin is another musician that I have also been playing with a few years. He makes the violin sound like a traditional African instrument. When I decided to have him in the Prophets, I was not thinking of him as a violinist per se – more like a musician who understands diverse African music.”
In accordance with Mbappé’s vision of music as a communal, transcendent endeavor, How Near How Far was recorded live in the studio, with all the musicians present and interacting in real time. From the intricate rhythmic subdivisions of the Argentine-inspired “Milonga in 7” (a dedication to tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla) to the bop-derived swing sections within “Bad as I’m Doing,” the Prophets inhabit a range of styles, but never as tourists: They embody each passage, each component of Mbappé’s eclectic, evocative compositions with both precision and passion.
“My music is influenced by places I have traveled, people I meet, colors I see, flavors that I taste, fun that I’ve had, and, sometimes, the pain that I feel,” Mbappé concludes. How Near How Far is a powerful manifestation of those feelings and experiences, brilliantly brought to life by the Prophet’s seemingly limitless resources. “We live in a complex world today,” he says in closing, “but all we need is love and understanding. I want nothing more than to bring that joy and understanding to people through music.”