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Chris Botti: Kinds of Brood

Chris Botti
Chris Botti
Chris Botti

Chris Botti is harder to pin down than you might expect. Sure, the trumpeter, contemporary-jazz star and A-list pop accompanist courts mass audiences with his direct melodic approach and matinee-idol good looks. And he’s the only jazz musician of any sort to appear on The Young and the Restless, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, QVC and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show–all in the last few months, by the way. (He opened that last splashy event in a lone spotlight, finessing “Embraceable You.”)

But Botti is considerably more than a pretty face. Although he’s known as a smooth-jazz artist and a member of the Sting entourage, his greatest success has come from recent albums of (mostly) songbook standards. Last year’s When I Fall in Love (Columbia), which featured fairly sophisticated interpretations, was certified gold by the RIAA. (An appearance on Oprah had something to do with it.) His recent follow-up, helpfully titled To Love Again, debuted in the Billboard Top 20. The album features the London Session Orchestra and luminous arrangements by Gil Goldstein and Billy Childs.

That’s not all it features: To Love Again pairs Botti with some high-wattage duet partners, like Sting, neosoul crooner Jill Scott, just-plain-soul heroine Gladys Knight, Brazilian chanteuse Rosa Passos and leathery Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. But the trumpeter doesn’t cite Sinatra’s Duets as inspiration; he’s thinking more along the lines of Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess. He sounds completely at home.

The following conversation took place halfway through Botti’s weeklong run at the Blue Note Club. I spoke with the trumpeter by cell phone, as he was finishing an early dinner with his manager at a sushi restaurant in Greenwich Village.

JazzTimes: I went to the Blue Note last night, and it was completely crazy. They had packed every cubic inch of space with your fans.

Chris Botti: So you couldn’t get in? No! Oh, I’m so sorry! That is such a drag, man. I’m so bummed; you would have loved the set last night.

JazzTimes: Why last night in particular?

Chris Botti: Last night was really great. I just have this incredible band, and it keeps evolving. The Grammy nominations came out yesterday, and we had a total of seven nominations scattered amongst the band. I had two, [pianist] Billy Childs had four, and then [drummer] Billy Kilson was on the Dave Holland record, which was nominated.

JazzTimes: Congratulations; it seems like an exciting time for you, and an incredibly packed time, too.

Chris Botti: The promotion aspect alone is kicking my butt a little bit. We’re on the road about 11 months a year. But for a jazz musician, these are the days you live for. It makes up for it, when you walk onstage. I feel very grateful to have Mark Whitfield, Billy Kilson and Billy Childs in my band, these three becoming-legendary jazz guys. It’s a real treat.

JazzTimes: I heard you don’t have a permanent home, because of all this touring.

Chris Botti: I don’t. I literally live out of hotels. I have one bag that my stuff sort of funnels in and out of. I’m looking to move back to New York, but it’s so busy that I can’t quite get enough time to get back there and find a place to live. If I have a week off or something, I just check into a hotel. In the last couple years I really haven’t had a week off, ever.

JazzTimes: So you’ve figured out how to keep doing arrangements and putting the music together on the road.

Chris Botti: The band is so important with that. They’re such good musicians, and I give them a lot of freedom. That’s why the thing sort of breathes differently every night. Sometimes we have amazing, electric shows. And sometimes, you know, it’s OK. I don’t think the audience will pick up on that if they just come to a show, but if they see four or five shows, they’ll realize every show’s completely different. Not in what we play, necessarily, but in how it’s approached. With these kinds of jazz musicians, the best thing to do is give them complete freedom and then hang on. The shows are much, much different from my albums. My albums are very contained and not so risky. And for a reason: I like records that kind of chill you out and make you feel a certain way. But live, it’s a freer thing that really has its roots in that quintet with Miles and Wayne Shorter.

JazzTimes: Does that ever pose a challenge for this audience base, that it’s not exactly what they expect to hear?

Chris Botti: I think if we were to do a record where we were taking it out like this, they might feel like, “Whoa, what’s going on?” But when you’re sitting there watching it, when you see these incredible musicians express themselves, I think you get taken over by the energy of the thing. People are just blown away by it. That’s very gratifying to me that we’re somehow crossing over in a way to a large audience but we’re not dumbing down the music. We’re doing quite the opposite, in fact: trying to elevate the music and not make it so it’s like: “Here’s the melody, and we’re out.”

JazzTimes: Do you feel like it’s a kind of outreach?

Chris Botti: I do. I’ve had lots of musicians come to the shows and go, “My god, here’s this music that’s being purchased by a lot of fans, and yet you guys are playing the stuff that musicians love.” That means a lot to me.

JazzTimes: You mentioned Miles. On this record, there’s a passing reference to “Flamenco Sketches,” and you even recorded it, along with “Milestones,” as bonus material.

Chris Botti: “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is definitely a tip of the cap to “Flamenco Sketches.” And on the DualDisc, we did four songs live and in Capitol Studios in L.A., and David Sanborn came and played on one song. We did “Milestones,” “Flamenco Sketches,” “To Love Again” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

JazzTimes: What are some of Miles’ qualities that really speak to you?

Chris Botti: He had the most beautiful, dark, brooding approach to playing the trumpet. That melancholy atmosphere is the thing that I’ve always been chasing my whole career. And I’m so drawn to that quintet–like, right when George Coleman was in the band, or just when George Coleman left and there was Sam Rivers or Wayne–like Live at the Plugged Nickel and all that stuff.

JazzTimes: So will the next album have “The Sorcerer” on it?

Chris Botti: I don’t know about that. [Laughs] But we just finished a live DVD and CD and PBS special, which we taped last week. What you’ll see at the Blue Note is represented there, plus an orchestra, plus special guests. And it has that kind of reference point in it.

JazzTimes: That segues into your media profile. This week I got to tune in to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show–in the name of research, of course. In the broadcast, they showed a lot of frantic backstage goings on. So I was looking carefully to see if, among all the lingerie adjustments, you could be spotted playing long tones in the background.

Chris Botti: The models’ dressing rooms were on the other side of the stage. On our side of the stage was Ricky Martin’s and Seal’s and my dressing room–and the green room, so occasionally the models would come over. It’s an incredibly well-done show, from a production standpoint. But the women are so beautiful, it’s like they’re not even real. They’re all six feet tall, no body fat; it’s pretty crazy. But that show is really well done. I think it was a cool, gutsy move for those people to choose a melancholy jazz vibe to open the show. Usually for those kinds of shows they have someone come out who’s very loud and rock, like Lenny Kravitz. I was very happy that it was me this year.

JazzTimes: So much of the work you’ve done lately has been about presenting an image, or the idea of something–like that brooding romance. What kind of thought goes into that? Is it something you’ve really sharpened and honed as an artist?

Chris Botti: Well, with regard to the music, or with regard to the gossip columns or something?

JazzTimes: It all just seems part of this package. With the romance of the music, and the way that it’s being played–it calls up this host of associations. Of course, it’s being presented in the context of television, not a basement jazz club in the West Village.

Chris Botti: Right. It’s kind of a glossy, big, romantic sweeping thing that we’re trying to get across on television.

JazzTimes: So how do you dialogue with that as an artist? Because it seems to me that you make it work for you.

Chris Botti: I’m basically trying to steal everything I can from Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis’ Hot House Flowers and make it accessible to the general public. I’m not very close-lipped about what these last two records have their home in. Go get Clifford Brown With Strings. Or get that Wynton record [Hot House Flowers], or Standard Time, Vol. 5 of his, which I love; or Miles’ stuff with Gil Evans. People like that kind of stuff. Not every successful instrumental record needs to be done by a guy on a beach looking into the camera with one little melody that has an interval of about a third. It can be music that is more languid, it can be music that’s darker. It can be music that’s not necessarily going to be on the radio. That can be successful. And that’s been one of the most gratifying things of my whole career. Miles Davis had a vibe that evoked romance, longing, heartbreak–all that sort of stuff that people can connect with. A hit is something else. That’s not necessarily the kind of music that I’m trying to promote. It can kind of date you in a way, and make you open to a lot of criticism that you might not want. I’m just here trying to play beautiful melodies, quite simply sometimes, with great arrangers and great musicians behind me. And space on the records, that’s real important to me.

JazzTimes: At the same time, there’s something afoot with songbook interpretations. So many popular artists have turned toward this music, and toward presenting it with an orchestral setting or light-jazz instrumentation. In the space of time between your last record and this one, there’s really been a push in that direction.

Chris Botti: Yeah, and the thing that I really try to make a conscious effort about is: With my arrangements and the framework that we do these records in, the songs should fit together but all sound different. I’m really proud of the way we’ve sculpted the arrangements on these records to make them accessible but not make the whole record just sound the same. That’s really important to me. You’ve got these tunes like “Good Morning, Heartache” with a different vibe underneath it. Or the arrangement to “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” which Sting sings on, is gorgeous. That kind of framework around a singer or a trumpet player is really important. It’s not unusual for people to make standards records, but sometimes I listen to them and the arrangements aren’t bringing something new to the table. Some of them do; I certainly think Diana Krall did a fantastic job of that. But I think that these songs are really, really well known, and you need to make them as different as you can.

JazzTimes: How exactly do you go about making them different?

Chris Botti: My favorite record out right now, and it’s been my favorite for a while, is this very, very simple Keith Jarrett record called The Melody, at Night, With You. To me, that’s the perfect album. He plays all these songs that everybody knows, but what happens with the harmony underneath him, it’s like Chopin. There is no more beautiful, artistic approach to music than when that guy lays his hands down on the keyboard. Tomorrow, if Keith Jarrett were to go on Oprah and people were to hear that music, I think they would freak out and flood the record stores. What the music does to me, it’s instant opium. It’s a musical opiate that washes over you in such a sophisticated, wonderful way. The arrangements on that album, vis-a-vis his incredible talent, are unbelievable. We try to do the same thing, even though the arrangements sound very simple. We’re dealing with the best arrangers in the world and the best studios and the best engineers, and that stuff altogether adds up to a potent combination.

JazzTimes: Could you call Oprah on speed dial and get Keith Jarrett on? That might be interesting.

Chris Botti: I would be kidding myself if I said I could do that. But it’s amazing how many people I’ve turned that album on to. Because everyone knows Harry Connick Jr. and hopefully they’re starting to know me, and they know Sinatra and Michael Buble. That audience would die over that Keith Jarrett record. The same grandmother that listens to my record, or the same young person that might listen to my record as a musician, would marvel at that Keith Jarrett record. And I know, because I’ve turned a lot of fans on to it. They ask me what I’m listening to, and I tell them, and then they come to my show and say, “Oh, my god, I bought that Keith Jarrett record and I freaked out.” It has that same link to what Diana Krall’s music has, what my music has, and that is space, simplicity–but in that simplicity comes an artistry that hopefully people will stick with for a while.

JazzTimes: This is a duet album, though, and that Jarrett record was done in his living room. I imagine that this was more intense, from a logistical standpoint.

Chris Botti: We had to chase some of these singers around the world, because they have very, very busy schedules. Buble tours as much as I do, so we caught up with him in Vancouver. We went to Las Vegas to have Gladys Knight. And we went to Philadelphia for Jill Scott and England for Paul Buchanan. So there were a little more logistics. But I’ll tell you something: There’s a thing that sets this record apart. Sometimes when I listen to duets records, it feels to me like I can hear the record executive go, “You should work with so-and-so to get a younger audience.” My collection of singers, I’ve either worked with or I’m very good friends with socially. The biggest leap was Steven Tyler singing “Smile”–and one of my best friends is a backing musician in Aerosmith, so I’ve known Steven socially quite well. I called him up on his cell phone; he was taking his family on a ride at Disney World, just getting on a roller coaster. I said: “Hey Steve, I know it’s weird, but would you ever do a jazz thing with the London Orchestra?” He said he’d love to do it, and as a matter of fact, he did an amazing job.

JazzTimes: Do you have a favorite duet on the album?

Chris Botti: Um, yeah–probably “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” because Sting is my bud and he’s done so much for me, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it hadn’t been for my association with him six years ago. A lot of people say, “Oprah discovered you.” But really, Sting set that table for me in 1999 when he asked me to join his band.

JazzTimes: The convolutions of that song are perfect for him.

Chris Botti: I almost tried to talk him out of doing that song. He wanted to do it, and I was like, “Sting, it’s a hard song to sing!” Because of the intervals, and the approach of that first entrance. But he did a great job, and I really love that arrangement, the way it stops in the middle and the orchestra swells behind it. It’s so hip, in its way. That whole end vamp, with my solo and Billy Childs, was all done live. We didn’t plan on ending it like that, it was all just one take and we kept it. But generally that’s the way we work: I cut everything live with Billy in the room.

JazzTimes: So the session really was the meeting of a pop sensibility with jazz musicianship.

Chris Botti: Right. The real cornerstone of what I’m trying to get across is exactly that. A jazz musician and a guy who loves jazz musicians, but who knows when to rein it in–and because I want to, not because I think it’ll sell. It’s in the name of space, more than anything. That song with Sting, even though there are some very lush parts on it, has a lot of space. That’s really important for my music, because otherwise you fill everything up and the trumpet starts getting dinky. All of a sudden it doesn’t have the romance and the vulnerability that it needs to have, with regard to the actual instrument.

JazzTimes: Vulnerability brings me back to Miles, whose influence you seem so up-front about. Have you been frustrated by comparisons to him? Has it ever worked against you?

Chris Botti: It’s interesting, because most jazz critics are so thankful that there’s a kind of jazz–a kind of jazz–that’s reaching a mass public, without being dumbed down. Somebody could take potshots at me, easily, and say “Chris Botti is trying to rip off Miles Davis.” And I’ll be going: “Hey, guess what, guys? I’m trying to rip off Miles Davis!” I’m not trying to hide that fact. But what I think I’ve done is present this kind of music to a large audience. And that, in turn, can only help jazz, too. I’m a Wynton fan, I’m a Terence [Blanchard] fan, I’m a Roy Hargrove fan; I love all those guys. I just think that any time someone can break through and do music that reaches a large audience that has its roots in that stuff, it’s good. Right now, at least, the critics have been incredibly nice to me for that reason. If I got all high on my horse, that might be a bit different situation. I was very moved by Miles Davis when I was a kid and I can’t shake that influence, and I’m not trying to.

JazzTimes: The first time I became aware of you was when I saw the Paul Simon concert in Central Park, which I guess was 15 years ago.

Chris Botti: Exactly. August of 1991.

JazzTimes: When I think about it, the music we’re talking about now is, on the surface, quite the opposite of that Paul Simon tour, which had all that percussion going on. But in the moments when your instrumental voice came out front, there was definitely a floating thing happening.

Chris Botti: That tour for me was so eye-opening on so many levels, but not having to do so much with me as a solo artist. It was more eye-opening standing next to Michael Brecker for a year and a half. Going running with Steve Gadd every morning, hanging out with Richard Tee–those were the things. And hanging out with Paul, of course. Paul really understands that whatever’s happening musically still comes down to his voice, which can be quite fragile sometimes. So even though you have all this percussion going, it never jumps in the way of Paul’s voice. And that stayed with me.

JazzTimes: It served as a model for your solo career.

Chris Botti: Right. I was never touted as a prodigy. My trumpet chops, my physical apparatus on the trumpet, didn’t mature until much later in life. When I was in my 20s, I couldn’t play like I can now–whereas Wynton could play beautifully when he was 17. I never really had an opportunity to make a jazz album when I was 19 and all that. So I waited and waited and waited. Finally, when I was 32 years old, I said, “This is my time to go for it.” And I love Peter Gabriel and I love Miles Davis and I like Sting and all that, and I tried to combine them. The first thing I did was basically strip away a lot of the chords. Bebop, at its root, feels like a straitjacket to me, partially because I don’t have the ability to fire off all that content. Playing straight bebop changes is not my forte. It’s way, way more Roy Hargrove’s forte; he’s so great at that. And I’m thinking, “Why would I want to get in competition with that?” I didn’t want to go out there and play “Stablemates.” It’s not really where I’m going to feel the most at ease. And so I tried to figure out what kind of music it was, and it’s been a 10-year journey until this thing popped last year on When I Fall in Love. If I do have any strengths, it’s really recognizing what I’m not great at and getting the fuck away from it. I realized I’m never going to be able to play “Cherokee” as well as Wynton or Clifford. So why try?

JazzTimes: What you’re saying reminds me of something I often hear people say about Miles, which is that he recognized his technical limitations and came up with something else, to flatter his strengths.

Chris Botti: You know, I never listen to him play with Charlie Parker. There’s no mystery in it. I can feel those chords move underneath him, but I can’t feel him flow. Like, when he was playing with a cup mute? The cup mute is like, ugh! What makes me love Miles is when he soars up there, when he’s playing “Walkin'” and the tempo is so breakneck; sometimes he’s playing in completely unrelated keys but it’s so amazing and free, the way he approaches music. There was a great interview with Bill Evans that I carry around in my case. Bill Evans said that he respects people for whom the arc of the career and the way they improvise and make music is a crescendo. In other words, they get better with time, over thought and practice and dedication to a sole path. Miles Davis is the prime example of that kind of thing: He was not nearly as good at 33 as he was at 43. But I think Miles Davis played the shit out of the trumpet, man. When you listen to that solo on “Seven Steps to Heaven,” I don’t care who you are; as a trumpet player, that is amazingly difficult to do. Early on in his career, he was looked at as a guy who could never live up to Dizzy Gillespie, but he found a way to play technically beautifully on the trumpet–and stuff that’s hard, man! You listen to Four and More when, like, he’s tagging those high F-sharps and stuff like that–it’s artistic, it’s not some B.S. As a trumpet player, from 1960 to ’69, I don’t think anyone could touch him. He didn’t have the straight-up acrobatic nature that Dizzy had, but he did some stuff that slayed me way more than Dizzy ever did.

JazzTimes: Another guy from that particular period is Woody Shaw, with whom you actually studied.

Chris Botti: I love Woody. I think he’s so incredibly underrated. He didn’t have the super-romantic quality, but his shapes–at the end of his phrases he’d have just that touch of vibrato that would swing out a little bit. Like off of Rosewood and all that stuff. He was just an incredibly forward-thinking trumpet player, and he never got the respect that he deserves.

JazzTimes: What can you say to the jazz musician who’s seeking this sensibility you’ve been talking about?

Chris Botti: Did you see the Down Beat article where they interviewed a bunch of jazz musicians and asked if the success of Chris Botti was good or bad for jazz? A couple of the guys supported me, like Nicholas Payton and Mark Isham. But I just got slammed by a guy. Oh man, it was bad.

JazzTimes: Who was it?

Chris Botti: It was Jeremy Pelt. And I think he’s great, but it was just funny. I don’t know who the other guy was, but he made a very valid point–that these records aren’t jazz records because there’s not a lot of improvising on it. Well, if someone comes to my shows, there’s a shitload of improvising. But one could argue that they’re primarily melody-driven. Anyway, it was flattering, in a way, that I was part of some sort of topic.

JazzTimes: Could you name the three jazz records this year that you’ve had in your rotation?

Chris Botti: Like, new? I don’t own any new jazz records. I listen to the same jazz records all the time. Literally, I have this ritual where I listen to Miles Davis–something like Plugged Nickel–before I go onstage, just to loosen me up. Before I go onstage I want to be superloose. I played at the World Series last month, and I was in the tunnel with my Walkman; it was such a surreal thing. You’re in the tunnel, listening to Miles play, and all of a sudden they say “Go!” and push you to home plate. And you’re out in the middle of millions of people watching on television. Just the juxtaposition of going from Miles Davis in 1964 to that–it was bizarre. JT

Listening Pleasures

“I definitely seem to be the kind of person that junks out on one record for two or three years and then goes to another record, rather than having a wide variety of stuff I check out. I overdose myself on one particular thing, and hopefully it seeps into my playing in a positive way.”

Wynton Marsalis, Standard Time, Vol. 5: The Midnight Blues (Columbia)

Keith Jarrett, The Melody, at Night, With You (ECM)

Roy Hargrove, Moment to Moment (Verve)

Jan Garbarek, In Praise of Dreams (ECM)


Botti uses a vintage 1940 Martin Handcraft Committee trumpet. He used to have 1920 Bach 3C mouthpiece but he now uses a 1926 Bach 3 silver-plated mouthpiece. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).