By Norton Wright
On Gotham’s frigid December 31, a sold-out house of 250 or more at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village (131 West Third Street) was treated to a dazzling performance by Grammy Award winning jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and his band. It was an hour and a half of sonorous beauty, a vivid example of how Botti has created a jazz dimension filled with sensuous sound aglow with his signature trumpet style that melds mellowness with finely textured sizzle.
His band members are stars in their own right, and each could easily head up his own group. On piano and synthesizer, Jeff Keezer (an ace keyboardist and arranger) filled his hands with notes on the samba-esque opening number leading to Botti’s warm and energetic entry and letting the audience know that it was in for a genuine “feel-good evening.” The musical surprises started immediately and set the pattern for the show. Botti beautifully disguised “When I Fall In Love,” let it emerge gradually, hinted momentarily at “I Thought About You,” then passed the tune over to the stunningly inventive, fast-fingered guitarist Leonardo Amuedo (a new arrival from Brazil by way of Uruguay).
It’s impossible to list the “highlights” of this New Year’s evening performance as every number was a “highlight in itself,” deliberately sequenced by Botti into a jazz show of changing moods and guest star arrivals like that of Yelena Ygorian. A violinist from Armenia with ravishing movie-star looks, she plays in the achingly-beautiful style of Stephane Grappelli. To the tango tempo of the tune “Oblivion,” she and Botti put the audience away playing in unison and creating a haunting and bluesy melancholy.
More international talent was in the mix via the band’s bassist from Cuba, Carlitos Del Puerto, whose electronically amplified string bass made for clear, clean support throughout the evening and whose solo during Botti’s “Flamenco-Sketches” tribute to Mile Davis was superbly melodic and inventive. Later in the show, Puerto’s switch to electric bass added a touch of rock fusion to boost the rising energy in the show’s closing numbers.
Each selection was rhythmically propelled, massaged, enhanced, accented and showcased by longtime Botti percussionist, Billy Kilson, who may be the most exciting drummer working today. Always in the moment, he was elegant in the softness of his brushwork so as not to overwhelm the band’s delicate numbers, but a powerhouse of invention when it was time to drive the up-tempo numbers. And toward evening’s end, his thunderous drum solo was a gas to both see and hear. Kilson didn’t look at his drums while playing this solo but rather gazed off at what seemed to be a fourth wall where the god Thor must have been residing, urging Kilson on and applauding their mutual magic.
The final surprise of the evening was the amazing singer Lisa Fischer whose multi-octave range is stratospheric but who also used her voice as a unique musical instrument. Softly scatting, she opened with an almost prayer-like intro from which gently emerged “The Look Of Love”, with Botti’s incoming trumpet kicking the tempo up and Keezer’s synthesizer adding a rich, full-orchestra sound reminiscent of Botti’s CDs, A Thousand Kisses Deep, When I Fall In Love” and “To Love Again.” Fischer is in that rare category of unusual singers whom Botti and his producer-manager, Bobby Colomby, have often brought to their recording dates (coming to mind are Paula Cole, Rosa Passos, Jill Scott – and who can forget teenager Rene Olstead’s yip of joy at the conclusion of her successful take on “Pennies From Heaven” on Botti’s CD, To Love Again). Lisa Fischer is clearly in this pantheon of all-star singers, and Botti’s worldwide audience would be well served if she were to be recorded on some of his future CDs.
All of the above performances were neatly integrated into the show by the affable Botti who engages his audience with his laid-back verbal introductions to the tunes played and with entertaining bridges, tags, and asides. As his show’s host, Botti deliberately reaches out to please and entertain his listeners. I first witnessed his inventiveness in connecting with his audience some years ago at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. Grooving along on a sunny afternoon at the Hollywood Bowl, Botti sauntered off the stage into the audience, found a young woman in the front row and standing directly in front of her, put his trumpet to his lips, and played directly to her, just for her, as if she were the only person in the whole world. She was clearly charmed by his personal overture, which was both gentlemanly and musically beautiful. If he had blown in her ear, she couldn’t have been more delighted.
On New Year’s Eve at the Blue Note, Botti initiated a variation of this kind of audience engagement, and it brought forth a sweet and touching moment. Before starting his take on Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” Botti spotted a 7-year-old girl and her 5-year-old sister sitting with their parents at the edge of the stage. He asked the little girls their names and ages and where they were from and were they having any fun tonight (they were!). He congratulated them for staying awake, given the lateness of the hour – and then he launched into the number. Looking down at them, he played directly to them, just for them, as if they were the only kids in the whole world. The number picked up in tempo, and Botti moved over to interplay with guitarist Amuedo – but toward the end of the tune, Botti returned to the edge of the stage to play directly to the little girls once again – and he ended the tune with an improvised flourish of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” — just for them! In that moment, I think he made two jazz fans for the rest of their lives!
Steve Guest, the audio engineer who travels with the Chris Botti band, does masterful work in positioning the band’s mikes, astutely mixing the audio levels of the band members and singers during their performances, and adding just the right amount of reverb to help achieve Botti’s distinctive mellowness. In a musical show, whether at the Blue Note jazz club or in a big, concert auditorium, audio excellence is vital and having Guest doing such an excellent job in that regard — every night! – underscores the attention to detail that makes the Chris Botti show so successful at every level. At the Blue Note, a similar plaudit is due to the club’s lighting engineer, Pat LaMarca, who enhanced the musical moods of the New Year’s evening with subtle and effective color and illumination changes. Guest and LaMarca remind us that tech details really matter, and a successful jazz show must be both seen and heard.
At evening’s end, Botti’s show reminded us that, whatever the performance venue, making art is hard work and is put together bit by bit, addressing a myriad of interrelated details – star talent, material, performance, audience engagement, technical excellence, execution – and heart. Responding perfectly to all those requirements, Chris Botti and his band are clearly resounding winners. Together, they were an inspiring way to start the new musical year.
As Botti’s full-ledged show was ending with a jazzy and appropriate take on “Auld Lang Syne”, what came to mind was the lyric of Stephen Sondheim’s song, “Putting It Together”, from his musical, “Sunday in the Park With George,” It’s what Chris Botti does:
Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every detail plays a part
Having just a vision’s no solution
Everything depends on execution
The art of making art is putting it together
Bit by bit
Photos by Bobby Colomby