By Don Heckman
Chris Botti made his third consecutive L.A. appearance in July Wednesday night. This time, he was at the Hollywood Bowl, following July concerts in 2009 and 2010, almost to the day, at the Greek Theatre.
And this performance, like the earlier ones, defined why Botti has become the music world’s best selling instrumentalist. Touring the world with a stellar ensemble for 300 or so appearances a year, he has created a musical entertainment as fine tuned and superbly functioning as a TAG Heuer Grand Carrera.
The program for Wednesday’s concert had some striking similarities to the 2009 and 2010 appearances. All three opened with “Ave Maria” and “When I Fall in Love.” Other pieces – “Emmanuel,” the “Theme from Cinema Paradiso,” “The Look of Love” and “Caruso” (from Botti’s Italia CD) were also heard on all three programs.
If that sounds like substantial repackaging, one could make the case that virtually all major touring musical artists offer programs liberally sprinkled with familiar items. Entertaining his audiences with musical authenticity is clearly Botti’s goal, and he achieves it with winning regularity
What makes his programs most intriguing for jazz listeners, however, is the fact that Botti and his impressive musical companions do not – in the way that many pop artists do – perform as living juke boxes, repeating their hits note for note, with no creative variation.
Botti’s first lyrical phrases on “Ave Maria,” for example, followed by pianist Billy Childs’ inventive excursion through “When I Fall In Love,” immediately made it clear that familiarity would breed inspiration, not predictability.
Other highlights produced similarly compelling results: the dynamic violin playing of Caroline Campbell; the extraordinary work of the Botti band – pianist Childs; guitarist Mark Whitfield, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto; drummer Billy Kilson; keyboardist Andy Ezrin. And, perhaps most remarkable of all, singer Lisa Fischer, moving with utter ease from the balladry of “The Look of Love” to her extraordinary, tenor-range rendering of the Italia theme. Add to that an unexpected guest performance by Micheal Buble, topping the evening with a soaring duet with Botti on “My Funny Valentine.”
At the start of the show, the question raised by the first few numbers from the opening act — Bobby McFerrin and the Yellowjackets — was what in the world they were all doing on the same stage together. Singer McFerrin, one of the most musically gifted performers on the face of the earth, seemed to be used primarily as little more than another melodic voice alongside Bob Mintzer’s tenor saxophone and EWI (electronic wind instrument).
All that changed with McFerrin’s spontaneous solo number, which triggered a burst of vitality – from the Yellowjackets, as well as the crowd. The rest of the set continued on a rising arc, with McFerrin and the Yellowjackets interacting superbly, thoroughly demonstrating the compatibility of their unique jazz skills.
Chris Botti photo by Tony Gieske.