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.
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.
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.
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.