Live Music: Chris Botti and Chris Isaak at the Hollywood Bowl

By Don Heckman

There were two guys named Chris on stage at the Hollywood Bowl Friday and Saturday nights. Despite their identical first names, their styles traced to very different genres. And despite those different sources, they both offered performances rich in musicality and compelling entertainment.

Friday evening opened with the first Chris – jazz trumpeter Chris Botti — backed by his own group and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Bramwell Tovey.

Chris Botti
Chris Botti

Although Botti was often identified with the smooth jazz style in his early years, he has always been a player whose music was filled with the authority of jazz authenticity. Over the past two decades his ever-curious, inventive imagination has taken him to jazz settings reaching from performances with full symphonic orchestras, to straight ahead mainstream jazz, and explorations reaching the outer limits of free improvisations.

Much of that territory was explored in his gripping performance at the Bowl.

Botti began with a warm tribute to Miles Davis, applying his trademark, warm tone to a composition long associated with Davis – Rodrigo’s Concierto De Aranjuez. To Botti’s credit, he made the piece’s lush Spanish melodies his own. He was equally expressive with Davis’ “Flamenco sketches.

And when he added some familiar standards – “When I Fall In Love” and “The Very Thought of You” – he once again emphasized his embracingly warm sound and expressive tone to every melodic phrase.

Botti also showcased his skills as a leader, urging the members of his band – pianist Geoff Keezer, guitarist Ben Butler, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Billy Kilson – into their own far-reaching skills. Add to that the mesmerizing violin playing of guest artist Caroline Campbell on the Grammy-nominateed “Emmanuel,” as well as George Komsky’s soaring vocal rendering on “Time To Say Goodbye,” and the stunning versatility of singer Sy Smith.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Botti’s easygoing communication with his audience. Strolling the stage, offering occasional interchanges with his listeners, he added a quality of warm connectivity too rarely seen in jazz performances.

Chris Isaak

One could also say the same about the other Chris on the program – rocker, singer/songriter, actor and talk show host Chris Isaak. Completely at home on the broad Bowl stage, Isaak moved into an even wider arena, moving across the narrow platform intersecting the box seats, then demanding a spotlight as he moved into the audience itself, singing, shaking hands with listeners, welcoming them throughout his set into an environment as comfortable as his living room.

Thirty years after he made his first recording, Silvertone, Isaak still maintains a dedicated audience. And his set embraced many of the high points of his twelve album discography. Add to that the numerous songs and musical themes he’s created for television and films.

His entertaining program encompassed memorable selections from all those sources. Among them: what is perhaps his best known song, “Wicked Game.” Add to that “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing” from the Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut and a string of a dozen or so somewhat less familiar, but equally compelling songs.

Strongly supported by his comfortable ease with his enthusiastic audience, and buoyed by his solid back up band, the lead guitar work of Hershel Yatovitz and lush timbres of the Los Angeles Phil, Isaak presented a program reaching far beyond his rock roots.

The program closed with yet another highlight: Chris Botti and Chris Isaak performing together in a brief set blending their disparate but amiable skills in tunes reaching from “Besame Mucho” to “Love Me Tender.” Call it the appropriate climax for a two-Chris performance to remember.

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