Chris Botti: Smooth operator

BY TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor

Sept 10, 2007 - Chris Botti, the Grammy-winning jazz trumpet player stood me up last week. That’s right. I had a date with one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People of 2004. 

Okay. Maybe it wasn’t exactly a date. We hadn’t planned on dinner and dancing, but he was supposed to call Wednesday. 

You see, I’ve been talking to the public relations people who handle Botti (Beaux-tea). I wanted to talk to him about his new album, “Italia,” due later this month, and I wanted to ask him about his upcoming appearance with diva Renée Fleming at the 50th Anniversary Gala for the Dallas Opera.

When we finally hooked up Friday, he seemed pleased to learn I had received a copy of the album from his record label.

�They got you the new record?� he asked. �Fantastic. I don�t think anyone has heard the record except for one other reviewer I did something for.�

Imagine that. The New-Telegram has scooped the big boys. 

Botti came onto the smooth jazz scene in 2001, after the release of his break-out album “Night Sessions.”

Nowadays, Botti’s handsome face and incredibly romantic music can be seen and heard everywhere, including the Internet. 

�My Funny Valentine,� Botti�s duet with pop icon Sting, which won a 2006 Grammy for best jazz arrangement accompanying a vocal number, may just be the most romantic seven minutes currently available on YouTube. In the number, Botti steps off the stage and plays the introduction directly to Sting�s wife, Trudy Styler, who�s sitting in the audience. Then, Sting comes in to seal the deal with some simmering vocals.

While technology has certainly created a new Botti fan base, the artist is a bit conflicted about the World Wide Web.

�I don�t know how I feel about the Internet,� Botti, 44, said in a call from California. �I don�t even have e-mail, but, hey, you�re not the first person who says that they�ve seen the YouTube piece, so I�m happy about that.�

Botti, a native of Oregon, credits Sting with launching his career and exposing his brand of jazz to a whole new audience. The two met in 1999 in a London bar. The rest is history.

�He certainly has been pretty much responsible for me having a big time career,� Botti said. �He promised me a platform for my music and that�s what he gave me. He said, �Listen, take a couple of years out of your solo career, come out on the road with my band and I can guarantee you will have many, many fans who have never heard or checked out jazz before.� And, that�s exactly what happened.�

In the last 25 years, Botti has performed with some of music’s greats. Some professional pairings worked out better than others.

�I left college at the beginning of my last year in 1984 and went out to Los Angeles to the Universal Amphitheater for a two-week gig with Frank Sinatra,� he explains. �During sound check, we did �Fly Me to the Moon,� which has this incredibly famous trumpet solo. Sinatra was merely being a gentleman when he turned around and said, �Great solo, kid.� We can all relate to the moment when being very young and being very stupid intersect because I was convinced that Frank Sinatra and I were really good friends. I went up and actually talked to Frank Sinatra like a jazz musician. I thought we�d end up hanging out in Palm Springs with some Scotch and blondes or something. I was delusional.�

After the encounter, Mr. Sinatra’s assistant came up to Botti, put her arm on his shoulder and said, politely, “Never bother Mr. Sinatra again.”

Sinatra aside, Botti has made some great connections through his music. This summer, he toured with Canadian jazz artist Diana Krall. He’s also worked with Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Gladys Knight and Burt Bacharach.

On the 2005 record “To Love Again,” friend Steven Tyler, the wild front man from the hard rock group Aerosmith, performs a uncharacteristically reigned-in  rendition of the classic “Smile.”

�Steven was going through a ton in his personal life at the time we cut the track,� Botti said. �When he walked into the studio I asked him if he wanted to do a run-through, but he said �Let�s just roll tape.��

According to Botti, Tyler said he didn’t want to rehearse because he had been experiencing difficulty getting through the song.

�What you hear on that cut is one takedown of his singing it,� said Botti. �It was incredibly emotional for him. When he finished, I reached for the control button to say something to him, but my producer pulled my hand away and said, �No. Wait. Give it a second.� It was very, very powerful.�

Botti became friends with vocalist Jill Scott when she was the opening act for Sting. On �To Love Again,� Scott does an incredibly light-hearted cover of �Good Morning, Heartache,� the Billie Holiday classic.�

Botti’s friendship with the folks at Capitol Records paved the way for him to record “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” a snazzy duet with the late Dean Martin on the new record.

�We got lucky. We make our records at Capitol Studios in LA. The Dean Martin estate knew we recorded there,� Botti explained. �They asked us to do a session. Sometimes, people bring you wacky ideas and you don�t really think it�s going to come out great. But, we did this take, and it actually felt like Dean was in the room. I mean, sonically. I�m very, very happy with the way that track came out.�

In addition to the duet with Martin, the new record includes performances with opera idol Andrea Bocelli and vocalist Paula Cole. Botti also covers the classical “Ave Maria” and “Nessun Dorma,” the wondrous finale at the end of Puccini’s opera “Turandot.”  

�I�m known for trying to add interesting arrangement touches, like in �Time to Say Goodbye� and �Deborah�s Theme,�� Botti said. �But, when we got to �Nessun Dorma,� it�s almost like we had to do a direct transcription.��

Botti’s mother is responsible for the classical influence in his music. She taught him to play piano at an early age. 

�I can't really sit down and play a song on the piano,� Botti admits. �But I know harmony and generally I compose on the piano rather than on the trumpet.� �

He also studied jazz with David Baker and the trumpet under William Adam at Indiana University.

�I walked into this huge camp of Mr. Adam�s students with their intense dedication to practicing his style and his approach to the trumpet,� Botti explains. �I was doing his rotation (a set of musical exercises) right before you called. I�ve done it every day for the last 25 years. He has been an incredibly powerful force for trumpet players for the past 40-50 years. I owe him everything.��

Botti enjoys a friendship with jazz great Herbie Hancock. Hancock played with Botti’s hero, the late Miles Davis. Botti admits to being just a little star-struck when he and Hancock played a gig at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. recently. 

Hancock played on the original recording of “My Funny Valentine.” In jazz circles, Davis’ version is considered to be the gold standard by which all performances are judged.

The two rode to the venue together. According to Botti, the conversation in the car went something like this:

�So, what do you want to do?� Hancock said.

�I thought we could do �My Funny Valentine.�� Botti said.�

�Would you like for me to play the introduction?� asked Hancock.

�Well, yeah,� Botti answered. �I mean, this guy changed everyone�s life with the way he played �My Funny Valentine,� but he�s still thinking that I might want to change the key or do a bossa nova or something. I thought, �No, Herbie. We�ll do it your way. It will make my life,�� Botti said.�

It was Botti’s exposure to Davis’ “My Funny Valentine” that made him decide to play trumpet.

�When I heard Miles Davis play the first three notes of �My Funny Valentine�, I knew then and there that I wanted to be a trumpet player.�

On November 17, Botti will share the stage with soprano Renée Fleming at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. They will join the Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus for “Bravo 50!” the opera’s anniversary gala. Tickets go on sale Monday, Sept. 17 and are priced from $85-$225. For more information contact 214-443-1063.

Hopefully, Botti will put “Ave Maria” on the set list. If the gods are smiling on us, maybe “Nessun Dorma” will be there, too. 

�Italia� will be available at www.sonymusic.com and other retailers, beginning Sept. 25. Pick up the record and set aside some time to fall in love again.�

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