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Jazz impressions with Chris Botti

Trumpeter Botti tours constantly with his instrumentals. He dishes on his career, his latest album, 'Impressions,' and musical collaborations.

May 28, 2012|By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Though best known as a contemporary jazz performer, trumpeter Chris Botti made his initial splash on the pop music scene.
Though best known as a contemporary jazz performer, trumpeter Chris Botti… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

There are many words that might describe jazz trumpeter Chris Botti's home high in the western Hollywood Hills. Minimalist. Contemporary. Cool.

"Lived-in" would not be on the list.

That's because Botti, single and 49, spends some 300 days a year on the road with his seven-piece band, for 220 shows plus travel. "I love it," he says almost wistfully. "I was happier when I did eight or 10 years with one trumpet, one suitcase and one carry-on bag."

It would be an understatement to say that Botti, who will appear Saturday at the Greek Theatre, carries more baggage these days — fame included. His band includes a violin soloist and a vocalist and performs in venues as huge as the Hollywood Bowl to tiny, intimate jazz clubs. He's America's largest-selling jazz instrumentalist, with PBS specials, Grammy Awards, gold and platinum records and A-list collaborators that have included Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and best pal Sting (the two even share similar blond-tipped spiky coifs). Botti's latest album, "Impressions," features more noted collaborators: Vince Gill, Herbie Hancock, Andrea Bocelli and David Foster, to name a few.

With all that, it's getting harder to convincingly state that his career is not about fame, it's about the trumpet. "By the time I was 12 and heard Miles Davis, it solidified my quest to want to play the trumpet," he says during a rare day at home.

It was different from most kids' dreams. "That's why we have 'The Voice' and 'American Idol' and all those things. Kids want to be stars overnight," he observes (later in the interview, he referred to "Idol" as "part music, part karaoke and part 'The Price is Right.'" ) "And my trip is, I wanted to do music, to make a solitary commitment to an instrument."

Botti stresses the word music, not the word jazz. An edge comes into his measured voice when he speaks of jazz purists who can't handle his eclecticism. "I'm not necessarily standing here saying I'm a jazz musician," he says. "In many ways, the way I play is much more closely linked to classical. I am making records that I want to hear. A lot of it is more popular music or classical music or cinema music. "

Bobby Colomby, formerly a drummer with famed rock-jazz fusion group Blood, Sweat & Tears and now producer of many Botti recordings, says you can tell the difference between a jazz trumpeter who came up through the jazz ranks and one with classical training by his or her fingers: The former lays the fingers flat on the valves, the latter plays with the fingers slightly curved. Botti, he says, plays trumpet with curved digits.

Still, Colomby believes Botti can hold his own in pure jazz, evidenced by his ability to improvise with Hancock in "Tango Suite" on "Impressions." "An improvised jazz solo is not a chance for someone to show you how many notes he can play in an allotted period of time," Colomby says. "It's an improvised melody on the chord changes of a song, and if you are good at it you are playing a great melody spontaneously. That's Chris. It almost sounds like it's written, but it's not."

For his part, even though he's not "pure jazz," Botti confirms that he needs a freedom that a classical music career would never have afforded. "By the time where I had to make the choice, at the end of high school, I loved the orchestra, but it was never going to be personal or unique," he says. "I mean this in a lighthearted not narcissistic way, but I wanted it to be about me, rather than me being linked to an orchestra. I wanted to call the shots on my career, whatever that was."

Like Colomby, Foster is also an unabashed fan. "Only once in a generation does an instrumentalist come along that breaks the rules, and he's that one," says Foster, who co-wrote with Botti the "Impressions" selection "Per Te" (For You), featuring Bocelli, and plays piano on their take of George Gershwin's "Summertime." "He can sit with Herbie Hancock, then sit with me and appreciate what I'm doing — I'm a pop guy who loves jazz but wasn't good enough to make a living at it. That's the key to his success. "

For better or worse, Botti's melodic recordings have been called cool jazz, a term he doesn't like much because of its elevator music implications. But he acknowledges that most people prefer the melodic, the beautiful, when they listen to music at home. But cool and smooth is not Botti onstage. "When I do a live show, it is completely different from my records," he says. "They want to see it, they want to be in a room with you to see that visceral technique. You've gotta come out and show them chops and technique and play all this virtuosic stuff and surround yourself with people who are doing all that."

Adds Botti, "It's the direct opposite of pop, where you play the same thing that's on your albums. A jazz musician has to exercise a totally different set of muscles in making an album or playing a concert. You've got to educate people that it's a whole show, not just a trumpet guy onstage."

Getting people to understand his work, Botti says, "is like being a politician in Brooklyn."

"You've got to stand in front of the subway and meet people and kiss babies and literally convert people one after the other."

calendar@latimes.com

Chris Botti, Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $39.50-$85. Info: (323) 665-5857; http://www.greektheatrela.com

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