Trumpet star Chris Botti has many accolades in his career, but he was surprised when he was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2004.
“The way that thing happened was that I was doing this little thing for People where I walked down the red carpet,” he says by phone from his car near his home in Los Angeles. “The next day they called me up and said I had been named to the list. You know, it’s not something that you can apply for.”
The reaction in the music industry, especially in his own band, was predictable. “I got teased relentlessly for it. I am still teased about it,” he says. “At the time I was 42 — not a 21-year-old pop star, like the Jonas Brothers or someone like that. So for them to actually recognize a 42-year-old, though, I guess you could say it was fun.”
Botti will perform at Patriots Theater in the War Memorial in Trenton on Sunday, March 21. “I’m on a never-ending tour,” he says. “For probably the past six years, my band and I have been out on the road about 300 days a year. I really feel like I have — this may sound a bit egotistical, but I would put my band up against any other band in the world. Any rock band, any group of classical musicians, or any jazz band of course. All of the musicians (Billy Kilson, drums; Billy Childs, piano; Andy Ezrin, keyboards; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Michael Valerio, bass; Lisa Fischer, background vocals; and others) are operating on a super high level. This is what makes the show, and audiences keep growing year after year.”
Botti occupies a unique place among instrumentalists. He sells lots of albums — four of his albums have topped the Billboard Jazz charts and each has gone either gold or platinum — like a pop star, but still commands respect among the jazz cognoscenti. He is in the rare position of being a “smooth jazz” pop star and being able to garner great reviews from jazz critics. He has been nominated for four Grammys and took home one in 2006.
“When you look at smooth jazz musicians, particularly saxophonists, the stuff they are into, the musicians they surround themselves with, are primarily R&B musicians,” Botti says. “But the stuff I am really into is coming from certain aspects of Miles Davis. The majority of what these jazz musicians (in my band) do is so complex. I have spent my career surrounding myself with these unbelievable jazz musicians and giving them room to shine in my show. I think that has really struck a chord with jazz people who see this trumpet player — although radically different from Wynton Marsalis — still is a fan and a super-admirer of the music. I think that is one of the reasons I have possibly been more accepted by the jazz critics. I am a jazz musician at heart.”
Radio has conspired to push some of the higher-level jazz-style music out of the “smooth jazz” arena, says Botti. Before the 1980s, many jazz musicians experimented with fusion blends that were accessible both to jazz and pop audiences. But smooth jazz radio eliminated many of the more complex compositions from its formats, says Botti, himself a former radio host. “So much damage was done to musicians who were trying to stretch. I remember when I first came on the scene, radio stations wouldn’t play Pat Metheny, because the songs weren’t ‘bouncy’ enough, or ‘up,’ or ‘shiny and bright.’ So all these musicians just went away. As a result, the world, and the country, lost its luster for trying to find instrumentalists who are brilliant. I have to remind you that Keith Jarrett played on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ He was the musical guest. That would never, ever happen today. It’s a sad state.”
Botti was born in Portland, Oregon — “the jazz capital of the world,” says Botti, tongue in cheek — in October, 1962. His mother was a concert pianist and piano teacher, and it was she who introduced her son to music. “She tried to get me into the piano, but I never took to it,” Botti says. “I switched to the trumpet when I was 9.”
He first got turned on to the trumpet while watching Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” with bandleader Doc Severinsen, a fellow Oregonian. When he was 12, Botti first heard Miles Davis. “There was something about Herbie Hancock’s introduction to ‘My Funny Valentine’ — that long, drawn-out introduction of his, and in comes this plaintive trumpet sound with nothing else around it. I just went, ‘whoa.’ All the other trumpet players, like Doc, played loud and flashy, and here is Miles with his haunting, dark, brooding sound, with this incredible band. That just did it for me. I remain a Miles Davis fanatic, but it’s really just one period that gets me — from 1959 to 1966 or ‘67. His chops were really on fire, and physically he was so together then. He was just untouchable back then.”
After that, Botti says, he had a powerful drive to make himself a professional musician. He practiced as much as seven hours a day. “There was nothing else to do in Portland,” he says.
The work has paid off for Botti. One of his recent achievements was a record and DVD of a performance in Boston with the Boston Pops Orchestra that was aired on PBS and was shown during subsequent fundraising drives on all of the network’s affiliates. On the disc, Botti performed with his usual band and also benefited from collaborations from musicians as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma, Josh Groban, Sting (whom Botti used to open for), Steven Tyler, John Mayer, and Katherine McPhee.
“What makes the Boston show so unique is that you can sort of feel the friendship up on that stage,” Botti says. “Not like I have a ton of friends in the music business, but I have some, and I called them. In the case of Steven Tyler, for example, I know him socially, but we had never played together on stage. There is enough history and enough mutual respect that he was just so down for it. I’ve worked with some others, like Yo-Yo Ma. I think the way we could go from one extreme to the other so effortlessly is the reason the show was so wild and so fun.”
From the time Botti was five until seven years old, he lived in Florence, Italy, the hometown of his father. He has great memories of that time, he says. His earlier experience there led to a CD, “Italia,” recorded in 2007. “I learned Italian there, but sadly I forgot it all. But I didn’t do the Italy record because I lived there for two years, and that I’m Italian. I did the Italy record because ‘Sketches of Spain’ was already taken (by Miles Davis). I wanted to make a romantic orchestra-ish record and not play the American songbook. I had the chance to write some things, and have people such as Andrea Bocelli on the record, and I just wanted to show the romance of Italy, like they had done with ‘Sketches of Spain.’”
Chris Botti, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Sunday, March 21, 7 p.m. 609-984-8400 or www.thewarmemorial.com.