By Don Heckman
Trumpeter Chris Botti has moved, over the past decade, from visibility in the smooth jazz genre – an identity that never really seemed quite right for him – to international prominence as a versatile jazz artist with a unique style of his own. Described by his record company, no doubt accurately, as the best selling jazz artist in the world, Botti has worked hard at getting to, and maintaining, his high level of achievement. Often on the road, at stops around the globe, for more than 300 days and nights a year, he maintains a rigorous schedule of keeping in close touch with his legions of fans. We caught him for a Q & A before his Los Angeles appearance at the Greek Theatre tomorrow night.
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DH: Chris, I know you came from a musical family environment, growing up in Oregon. Your Mom was a concert pianist. But what was it that made you want to play jazz and the trumpet?
CB: The thing that made me want to play trumpet – and jazz — was hearing Miles Davis play “My Funny Valentine” when I was twelve.
DH: Why? What was it that you heard, at that young an age, that had such an impact?
CB: I’ve always loved it, even then, when I can hear the space in what the horn is playing. That’s probably why I gravitated much more toward Miles’ band with Wayne and Herbie than toward the more straight ahead styles of, say, Kenny Dorham or Freddie Hubbard, even though I love those guys. I marvel at the incredible technique and the joy that Freddie and Clifford Brown had, and Dizzy as well, but I’ve always tended to gravitate toward the kind of music that ultimately just breaks your heart. When Miles plays “Old Folks” or something like that, the music sounds so pretty and at the same time haunting. That’s always what I was drawn to.
DH: Your shows have always seemed to be more than just instrumental performances. On Saturday, in addition to your group, you’ll have Lisa Fischer doing vocals. And, even more than that, you reach out, connect and interact with your audiences in a way that’s done by very few jazz musicians.
CB: I think it’s very important, especially nowadays, to reach out to your audience, and to be grateful that there’s an audience out there. Because that’s the element that propels everything. When you see a live concert, whether it’s me or a classical player like Lang Lang, or Joshua Bell – something without lyrics – you want to hear, at some point, or see and feel a sort of visceral bang. Miles saw bandleaders like Dizzy and Louis when he was coming up, and he saw that they had all that joy on stage, and he probably thought ‘How am I going to separate myself? I can’t out-Dizzy Dizzy. So I’ve gotta somehow come on with something of my own, some sort of brooding, artistic vibe. And that might light a fire under people.’ And he was right. It certainly did.
DH: You spent a substantial portion of your early career in the back-up bands of pop artists – most notably, Sting, but a lot of others, as well. Did those experiences serve, in any way, as templates for figuring out how to do your own reaching out to an audience?
CB: That’s completely true in regards to Sting, to Paul Simon and to Joni Mitchell, among others. One of the first things I learned was that their way into success was to surround themselves with incredible musicians. And they all did that. I was in a Paul Simon band with Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd and Richard T — all in the same band — with some West Africans and some Brazilians. And then when I went with Sting, it was the same thing. He really features his side musicians. He opens his audience to them, and them to his audience.
DH: That’s one aspect of influence that you’ve definitely followed. Your bands have been stellar assemblages. But you learned more, too, from those prominent pop artists in those early years, didn’t you? Something in the way you present yourself?
CH: You bet. Whether it was Peter Gabriel or Joni or Sting or Paul Simon, I watched the way they worked. How they crafted a song, how they paced a show. How they introduced people. All that was a huge asset for me in the way I do my own show..
DH: And there’s another aspect to the success you’ve had over the past decade, isn’t there? An aspect with the initials B.C., who was once the drummer with another hugely successful pop act, Blood, Sweat & Tears?
CB: Right. Bobby Colomby. My manager. He’s the guy who’s been swinging for the fences on everything. And in hindsight, the best deal I ever made in my life was to force Bobby to become my manager – begrudgingly at first, but now he’s way into it. He did it kicking and screaming at first, but now he just loves it. Which is fantastic.
DH: Your new album, Impressions, like your previous albums of the last decade, was the result of a combined creative consultation between you and Colomby, right?
CB: Yes. We’d had a lot of success on the heels of the Live in Boston album, One of the things that people said to me over and over again in the past 2 ½ – 3 years since that record came out, was that they liked the variety so much. They were really impressed by going from Steven Tyler to Yo Yo Ma to Sting. They liked all that, not only the beautiful music but the approach of ricocheting all over the place. So when Bobby and I started to formulate ideas for the record, we just kicked around some random ideas for guests, some kind of wish list.
DH: A wish list that included what?
CB: We started with Mark Knopfler and “What A Wonderful World.” How different could we get than that? Then, a year earlier, when the Polish government was reformed, they invited me to come and perform a piece on national television. And they commissioned us to do this Prelude by Chopin to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. And another good starting point for the album.
DH: You also managed to get Herbie Hancock on that list, too.
CB: Well, that’s an interesting story. We’d just performed at the White House, with Herbie. And Bobby had this wacky idea. He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you write something with Chris?’ Can you imagine how intimidated I felt? I told Bobby, ‘Man, you’ve lost the plot. You’ve let this gig of being my manager go to your head.’ And Bobby’s like ,’Trust me, it’s going to be fantastic.’ And I’m like, ‘Bobby, I’m nervous as hell. But he insisted I show up at Herbie’s house, which is pretty close to mine. Herbie’s idea was to just go to the piano – he had mics set up and his studio was downstairs. “We’ll just improvise,’ he said. So he just walked to the piano, delayed for a while, thinking, and then he played the first chord. And I played this little phrase. And we continued for about twenty minutes, recording it all, and then picked what we wanted and formed a song from that – with all the ins and outs…Alan Pasqua transcribed it for us, and Vince Mendoza who took all those ingredients and put them all together. And I told Bobby, ‘Man, you were right again’.”
DH: There’s a lot more on Impressions, of course. Standards like “Over the Rainbow” and ”Summertime,” a gorgeous cinematic piece by Gabriel Yared, another co-written piece, this time with David Foster. And , much more. You covered a lot of bases on this one.
CB: Yeah, We picked so much great material for this record that I don’t know what we’re going to do for the next one. Bobby and I might have to retire.
DH: How do you feel about the way things are going now, Chris? About where your career has brought you to, in all the years since you heard Miles play “My Funny Valentine?”
CB: We’re sitting in a real nice place to be right now, given the state of the record industry, and I feel forever grateful for that. People always ask me, ‘When are you going to take a break?’” And I go, ‘The long list of musicians who have screwed up a successful career or just get lazy and let it go, is huge. And I don’t want to be one of those. So I’m going to take it while it’s here.’ The truth is, I’m so into it. I can’t think of a better life.
DH: Thanks, Chris. Looking forward to hearing you tomorrow night [Saturday] at the Greek Theatre.