Somewhere between John Coltrane and John Tesh lies the phenomenon called "cool jazz." Serious jazz afficionados look down their noses at cool jazz, calling it soulless and saccharine. They fail to understand it. Cool jazz is not about withering improvisation on altered scales and chord extensions, it is about broad swaths of rich color -- deeply saturated musical blues and greens and reds and purples. And no one paints in richer jazz colors than trumpeter Chris Botti.
Botti is one of the world's top-selling instrumental artists, having sold over three million albums, and is among the brightest stars in the cool jazz heavens. The Lovely Lady T and I caught his show last Thursday night, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. (The photo above is from that concert, taken with my iPhone.) We go to a lot of concerts there, usually jazz, but other genres, as well. Our favorites at the Greek so far have been the Gipsy Kings, Melissa Etheridge, India Arie, Ziggy Marley and, now, Chris Botti.
In every concert he plays, Botti acknowledges that he owes his career to Sting, with whom he played begining in 1999, when he joined the music legend's band as featured soloist on the "Brand New Day" tour, which lasted two years. He was then fired by Sting, who followed giving Chris the bad news with launching Botti's solo career by making Chris his opening act. The two have similar personalities, and even look similar, both of them tall and slender, with heads of white-blonde hair.
Chris is a refreshingly modest personality on stage. His concerts are nothing like his albums. They are less about his own performance than an opportunity for him to share his favorite artists with the audience. And indeed, his concerts are filled with tunes that feature his band members and a steady parade of guest artists. At the Greek the other night, Grammy winner John Mayer loped on stage for a surprise and unrehearsed rendition of an old Sinatra song, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," just one of a number of featured guest artists for the evening. Botti's regular guest artists include Sting, Josh Groban, Steven Tyler, Yo-Yo Ma, Katharine McPhee, and Lucia Micarelli.
By the way, if you're anything like me, you noticed that in that last video Lucia Micarelli is pretty damn hot. Unfortunately for her (and me), she had fallen and injured her playing hand a couple days before we saw Botti at the Greek, so she didn't make that performance. In her place was Caroline Campbell, who has recorded with a bevy of popular artists ranging from Josh Grobin and Andrea Bocelli to Garth Brooks.
Another wonderful guest artist of Botti's is singer Sy Smith. You can see Sy Smith in a teal dress, on the left in the photo at the top of this page.
Sy Smith is one of the most enjoyable performers I have seen in a long time. Aside from her abundant talent, she sings with such radiance and joy that I found myself smiling all the way through her songs. She is the kind of performer that I always wished Anita Baker was. Sy uses her voice like an instrument, like Baker, but unlike Baker (whose concerts are sterilized, over-produced ego pursuits) she sings with a musical purity that is breathtaking. What a joy she is.
As for Botti himself, he is not the typical jazz trumpeter. Jazz trumpeters come in two basic types: the improvisation artist, like Miles Davis or Woody Shaw, and the flashy high note showboaters, like Maynard Ferguson or Doc Severinsen. But Botti fits neither mold. His improvisation is ordinary and he is anything but flashy. What Chris' playing is is beautiful, and contained, and amazingly precise. His tone is the biggest, roundest, purest sound I have ever heard from a jazz trumpeter; even when he is playing very soft, which is extremely difficult. His precision is impressive. I don't think he cracked a single note all night long, and every note he played was perfectly placed, solid and round, from the instant of the attack all the way to the release, no matter the range or the volume or the duration. Trumpet is a hard instrument to play that way, and even the best of the best have occasional "clams," but Botti was an absolute machine. From a musician's point of view, it was an impressive, flawless performance.
I may be the only person among the thousands there that was impressed by that, though. I am a former studio musician, and in L.A., studio musicians must be able to play anything that comes in front of them, and play it perfectly the first time and every time, exactly the same in every respect every time it is played. And so we prize Botti's kind of precision. He would make an excellent studio player if he ever gives up his solo career.To end the evening, Botti played a “saloon song” rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road).” In it, he walked into the crowd, playing for a row of adoring fans. It was an understated finale, highlighting the fact that Chris Botti – with his diverse material, engaging stage presence, and fine guest artists — is a talented trumpeter who knows what his audience wants to hear.
In the end, a Chris Botti concert is less a cool jazz experience than it is a whirlwind tour of guest artists from a variety of genres, all held together by the common thread of Botti's unique trumpet sound.