Live Jazz: Chris Botti at the Greek Theatre

July 12, 2010

By Don Heckman

Chris Botti’s traveling road show made its annual appearance at the Greek Theatre Saturday night.  And the enthusiastic, near capacity crowd loved every minute of the two hour performance.

Chris Botti

And why shouldn’t they.  Botti’s warm and engaging trumpet sound is one of the most appealing timbres on the contemporary jazz scene.  He was backed by a sterling ensemble of players – pianist Billy Childs, guitarist Mark Whitfield, keyboardist Geoff Keezer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Billy Kilson.  And his two guest stars – violinist Lucia Micarelli and singer Lisa Fischer – quickly revealed the capacity to steal a show from anybody.

Good ingredients are vital, of course, whether it’s putting together an entertaining show or making a memorable lasagna.  But equally important is the way they’re put together. And Botti’s pacing and his sequencing were beautifully done.

Start with a lyrical “Ave Maria” to assure the audience members eagerly anticipating the Botti sound.  Then switch into an exploratory “When I Fall In Love,” showcasing some of the most musically adventurous passages of the night, provided by the improvisationally exploratory imagination of Childs.  Follow up with more Botti lyricism, this time in a reading of “Caruso,” from his Italia album.

Lucia Micarelli

By this point, all the pieces were beginning to smoothly fit into place.  A loose romp through Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches” allowed Botti to stretch his commendable solo chops (compensating for his somewhat confused introductory assessment of the importance of the Davis Kind of Blue album).  And the evening hit its first peak with the stunning “Emmanuel” duet between Botti and the gorgeous drama of Micarelli’s violin playing.

The evening’s second half took everything up another level.  Among the highlights: a loose-limbed romp through “Good Morning Heartache,” performed with plenty of improvisational spunk, despite its minimal connection with either the meaning or the intent of the song itself; another musically intimate duet between Botti and Micarelli, this time with Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous love theme melody from the film Cinema Paradiso.

Lisa Fischer

And, perhaps most intriguing of all, the gripping vocal magic of Lisa Fischer.  Although she’s had a kind of major league visibility singing back-up for the likes of Luther Vandross and the Rolling Stones, Fischer is an extraordinary artist in her own right.  And the interpretive range she displayed – from “The Look of Love” and “The Very Thought of You” to her counter tenor version of Andrea Bocelli’s vocal on “Italia” was the stuff of a major league talent.  The time is overdue for her solo career to take off.

Botti, who engaged the audience in entertaining fashion with his between songs remarks ended the night in appropriately up close fashion, turning off all the amplification and strolling into the crowd to play – with the sole accompaniment of Childs’ piano – “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road).”  Appropriate, because of the intimacy of the way it was done.  And appropriate because the Chris Botti traveling road show was on its peripatetic way again, heading to dates in Milwaukee, California wine country, Australia, Iceland, Las Vegas  and beyond.

Jazz Live: Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Royce Hall

October 3, 2009

By Don Heckman

There’s never any question that a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is going to be a significant musical event. But their appearance at Royce Hall Friday night in a UCLA Live concert was even more — a program of works that entertained and illuminated, while offering convincing testimony to both the continuing vitality of jazz and the relevant durability of the big jazz band.

With so many creative tools available within the 15 piece instrumentation of the JLCO, Marsalis always has a lot of options in any given program. And on this night, it quickly became clear that the ensemble’s extraordinary collection of soloists would largely dominate an evening rich with Thelonious Monk selections. By the time the program reached its rousing conclusion, every member of the Orchestra — with the sole exception of baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, who reportedly was not feeling well — had ample opportunity to display his improvisational wares.


Amid the list of showcase solos, the highlights were led by Marsalis himself, whose articulate facility seems to become more impressive with every performance. His always gripping choruses roved from the airy use of a hat on Ted Nash’s quirky arrangement of the children’s classic, “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” to a high speed romp through Kenny Dorham’s “Stage West.”  Nash, who also wrote an even quirkier chart for “The Eensie Weensie Spider,” added several out of the box solos as well: a tour through his alto saxophone’s upper harmonics on his arrangement of Lee Morgan’s “Ceora”; an interval-leaping set of variations on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” (arranged by trombonist Chris Crenshaw); and a light-hearted romp on flute through “The Eensie Weensie Spider.”

Sherman Irby not only arranged Lou Donaldson’s “Blues Walk,” he also soloed with a stunningly dramatic use of sounds and silences. Crenshaw revealed improvisational chops to match his arranging skills. Trumpeter Ryan Kisor moved effortlessly from high note lead to briskly swinging choruses, while tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding found the heart of the music in every one of his several solo opportunities. And that’s not to mention the multiplicity of sterling work by the other JLCO players.

All of these individual excursions took place in the framework of first class arranging (Marsalis, to his credit, draws from the gifted writing talents within the ensemble) as well as the easygoing spontaneity between players who clearly respect and honor each other’s abilities. Among the other memorable numbers — Marsalis’ gorgeous, Ellington-inspired chart for the saxophone section on Monk’s “Ugly Beauty”; Sherman Irby’s big-band transmutation of the disjunct accents in Monk’s “We See”; and bassist Carlos Henriquez’s rendering of Joe Henderson’s “Shade of Jade.”

The enthusiasm on stage was self-evident throughout, never more so than when there was some good natured jibing at one point to persuade Marsalis to make sure Kisor had a solo. Ending the performance in high spirits, Marsalis spontaneously came back after most of the Orchestra had exited, and played a brief, swinging coda with the rhythm section as the audience began to leave. It was the perfect capper for an evening in which jazz was very much alive, well and flourishing.


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