By Devon Wendell
As flocks of devoted Chris Botti fans scurried to find their seats at the Greek Theatre Thursday night, they were first greeted by 20 year old singer, Renee Olstead. Although she may be best known as a TV star — appearing as a regular on the CBS sitcom Still Standing, and other family oriented programs — she has been tackling jazz and pop standards since her 2004 self-titled debut album. And her appearance as the opener for Botti was a natural, given their teaming up for his 2005 album To Love Again, and in 2006 for his highly acclaimed DVD Chris Botti- Live With Orchestra And Special Guests.
Olstead ran through familiar chestnuts such as “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Taking A Chance On Love” and “A Sunday Kind Of Love.” Backed by pianist Tommy King, keyboardist Ruslan Sirotta, bassist Dominic Thiroux and drummer Donald Barrett, her timing and her breathy, sultry voice worked well for many of the chosen ballads (though she did hit a few sharp notes when attempting to go beyond her vocal comfort range). In the weaker moments her overtly pop-styled arrangements, country twang, and pop star image often seemed like a doing-the-standards episode of American Idol. Interestingly, Olstead’s most impressive performance took place on her original composition “Nothing But The Blame” from her latest CD, Skylark, with its bluesy feel and exceptional drumming by Donald Barrett.
When Botti arrived on stage to thunderous applause, he wasted no time getting down to business with the brilliant Billy Childs on piano and Geoff Keezer on synthesizer, in a highly focused, poignant medley of “Ave Maria” and “When I Fall In Love.” Botti’s love of Miles Davis was felt in the latter, directly quoting Miles’s 1956 version of the tune, but with Botti’s distinct, reverb-laden tone. As the mood was set, the rest of Botti’s impressive band of top notch veterans — drummer Billy Kilson, bassist Tim Lefebvre and guitarist Mark Whitfield — fell in, adding ease and soul to the proceedings.
Continuing the Davis thread, Botti addressed the audience with humor and gratitude as he spoke lovingly of the classic album, Kind Of Blue, before gently launching into his own rendition of “Flamenco Sketches.” The performance easily put to rest the objections of anyone who might try to dismiss Botti as some sort of pop/smooth jazz sensation. He has done his homework and there were echoes of Miles, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, and even some Lee Morgan-esque slurred bends, as he alternated between playing open and with a mute. Instead of performing this classic note for note as it appeared on the original, Botti and the group sped up the tempo in some parts, slowed down and diminished the intensity in others. The wonderful interplay and phrasing between Botti and Whitfield was another highlight of the evening, most notably in Botti’s rendition of “Caruso,” which Botti described as a tribute to the tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Even with the lush arrangement of this piece, the symmetry between the two was awe-inspiring, highlighted by Whitfield’s Grant Green-like solo.
“Emmanuel” was included on the program as a tribute to violinist Lucia Micarelli, who usually performs on this piece and would have appeared this evening but had recently injured her hand in Italy. In her place was Caroline Campbell, who has recorded with a bevy of popular artists ranging from Josh Grobin and Andrea Bocelli to Garth Brooks. Despite some technical problems with her microphone, Campbell’s fluid playing, with its spot on intonation and strong vibrato, fit perfectly into the piece’s romantic qualities, as she and Botti traded solos. Campbell returned to the stage later for the evening’s most delicate and heartfelt number, the lovely theme from the film Cinema Paradiso. Billy Childs’ sparse but brilliant piano accompaniment fueled Campbell and Botti to great heights, with some audience members weeping at the gentility and grace of the performance.
The next guest in what was becoming an all-star evening, was popular R&B vocalist Sy Smith (Cousin of Mark Whitfield), who sang three numbers: a slow, funk rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “The Look Of Love,” Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” and Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” Smith’s sly, laid back style brought to mind Erika Badu and Me’shell NdegeOchello at their jazziest, as the band fell right into the groove of post HipHop-flavored, soul fusion. Botti stood at the helm, often taking very short solos, then standing at the side of the stage, enjoying Smith and the band as they let loose. Billy Childs played the most laid-back supportive role, with Whitfield, Lefebvre, and Keezer taking the most leads behind the vocals.
In a change of pace, Botti introduced the next number by humorously telling the crowd about how he went from being an active member of Sting’s band, to opening up for him and then acquiring his drummer Billy Kilson – whose fearless, bombastic style then took flight into a free-form rock-jam version of “Indian Summer.” Whitfield cranked up the volume and fuzz, having fun with Kilson, who sounded like a younger, louder Dennis Chambers as they quoted familiar riffs from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It was obvious that everyone – players and audience — were having fun.
But the big surprise of the evening was the arrival of guitarist/singer John Mayer, who joined Botti and the band gang for a loungey, gleeful nod to Frank Sinatra on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Wisely, Mayer didn’t try to sound like Ol’ Blue Eyes, and he didn’t have to. As one of the male music stars of this generation, his presence alone was enough to excite the captivated audience.
To end this long, entertaining evening, first Botti described his two-week stint in Sinatra’s band, joking about how he earned only $200, then led his own band into what he called a “saloon song” reading of Frank’s “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).” In it, he played his best solo of the evening as he walked into the crowd, playing for a row of adoring fans. It was a prime display of the simple fact that Chris Botti – with his diverse choice of material, his engaging stage presence, and fine selection of guest artists — is a consummate musician who also knows and cares about what his audience wants to hear.