Berks Jazz Fest artist Chris Botti up close

By Mike Zielinski

They say that you’re only on center stage for a moment, sliding past the eyes like the sudden shifting of light and shadow. Not Chris Botti. He’s a permanent fixture on center stage.
Botti will be on center stage performing in the Opening Night Celebration of the 30th anniversary Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Friday, March 27, at 7 p.m. at the Santander Performing Arts Center.

The man is a veritable road warrior. And durable as blue steel.

He has been on the road for 250-plus days a year for years. Performing worldwide, he has found a form of creative expression that begins in jazz and expands beyond the limits of any single genre.

Audiences love not only Botti’s musical brilliance but also his unprecedented charisma and charm. Not to mention his good looks. Suffice it to say, Botti is not noted for being incandescently nondescript physically.

Indeed, it’s pretty awesome to be Chris Botti. But it has taken an indomitable work ethic and, as we shall see, some fortuitous connections to make him perhaps more heralded than the Angel Gabriel, who played a heavenly trumpet.

Botti draws a constant draft of energy from the love of his craft. It’s more than a labor of love. It’s hard labor as well.

His whole life is geared toward performing on stage, where he spends the happiest moments of his life. To experience those moments, he has a singular focus that borders on tunnel vision.

“My whole day, my practicing, my physical routine, everything I do is all geared trying to ensure that I have my best shot at longevity on the trumpet and longevity walking on stage in front of people,” he explains. “That’s really my driving force in my life and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be able to do that.

“You have to practice a lot. Perhaps three, four, five hours a day. That part is intense. When you get older there are a myriad of things that can go against you with a trumpet. It can be a hernia or back issues or shoulder inflammation and that can really trip you out and can really sideline your career.

“It’s not just the lip. The lip is the obvious thing. Unlike a lot of trumpet players, I don’t use lip balm or Vaseline because it ruins the sensitivity between you and your mouthpiece.

“I look at someone like Doc Severinsen (of Tonight Show with Johnny Carson fame and a gifted trumpeter in his own right) who is 92 and he still looks the same and has an incredible exercise regimen and he plays and still tours,” continues Botti. “I just look at that and I say man, that is the way to age gracefully and put in the right place what the trumpet means to him.

“I use that as a role model. What the trumpet has done for me, what I have gotten from it both emotionally and professionally, is something I can never replace. So I want to water the plant, so to speak.”

With his sweat. He trains like a Spartan and has a spartan diet. If the Peloponnesian War ever breaks out again, he’s warrior ready.

He’s no longer a spring chicken at 57, but the aging process has yet to infiltrate his zip code. And now he’s fighting back to keep that barbarian Father Time at arm’s length.

“I’ve made a dramatic change in my life,” he explains. “I’ve cut out everything, no drinking, no eating. Since May I’ve made working out as important or more important than my trumpet playing. I’ve lost like 40 pounds. I look totally transformed.

“I’m super into it. I’m the old guy that lives at the gym for three hours a day. I have the time. I have the discipline and I have the dedication. So what’s my excuse? I don’t really have one. When I’m on the road I seek out a world-class gym and hire someone to train me. You’re never going to get to the place where you want to go. You need the push when it comes to weight training or a yoga class.”

Botti must have been humming David Bowie’s song “Changes” because Chris is making another dramatic change.

He used to say that six suits and a trumpet were all he really needed. He wasn’t joking.

“Over the last 17 years I’ve lived 12 of those years with no mailing address,” he says. “I own no possessions. I have one really big suitcase and a carry-on bag. When I get tired of a suit or grow out of it, I just get another one. Same with jeans. I checked into this hotel in Soho five-and-a-half years ago. I’m still here as we speak. But I just finally bought a brand-new apartment in Manhattan that I’ll move into in March or April.

‘’That is my commitment to the back nine of my life. I am going to do a complete about-face and have possessions. For five years I had a house in L.A., but it was different. I bought it staged and it had all the furniture in it. This is different. It will have my stamp on it, and it will be my home. I’m kind of excited about it.”

They say life is all about choices. Make the good choices and you’re saved. Make the bad choices and you’re damned. Botti made the prudent choice when he picked up a trumpet instead of a tuba as a kid. Tuba players do not become global superstars and date gorgeous women.

But to hear Botti tell it, playing the trumpet merely means a less cluttered road on the way to the top.

“Trumpet players are successful in a lot of ways because there are not a lot of trumpet players,” he explains. “Most kids want to sing or play rock guitar or play drums or play the piano but the learning curve on the trumpet is so much more difficult than the saxophone or those other instruments that you just weed it out by the sheer dauntingness of the actual instrument.

“Kids get frustrated and quit. But if you stick with the trumpet, what happens over time is you realize that your lane is open for business. It was a karmic move by me to play an instrument that doesn’t have a lot of traffic on it. The brass instruments are much more difficult than the reed instruments just because of the way you produce the sound.”

Although it’s a road less traveled if you play the trumpet, it also takes a ton of talent to achieve what Botti has. Mozart had his melodies and Rembrandt had his canvas. Botti’s artistic genius is his lyrical trumpet.

Since the release of his 2004 critically acclaimed CD When I Fall In Love, Chris Botti has become the largest-selling American instrumental artist.

His success has crossed over to audiences usually reserved for pop music and his ongoing association with PBS has led to four No. 1 jazz albums, as well as multiple Gold, Platinum and Grammy Awards.

His 2012 album Impressions won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental. He has sold more than four million albums.

Over the past three decades, Botti has recorded and performed with the best in music, including Sting, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Josh Groban, Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Bublé, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, John Mayer, Andrea Bocelli, Joshua Bell, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and even Frank Sinatra.

The trumpeter has also performed with many of the finest symphonies and at some of the world’s most prestigious venues from Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl to the Sydney Opera House and the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Italy.

Botti has thoroughly established himself as one of the important, innovative figures of the contemporary music world.

With a pedigree like that, you would think the man would have an ego big enough to land a 747 on. But ego is not his personal chauffeur.

“I didn’t have real success until I was 43, 44,” he says. “On the way up I saw successful people who didn’t pay attention to the grassroots of the audience or their career. If you’re a jerk … I’ve seen a lot of people torpedo their careers by their own actions. My job when I go play a gig, my job is to not only make the audience happy but to make the promoter happy. The promoter is the one who is deciding. If you’re not on it, stuff over time will just decay.

“You might view me as a nice guy, but I view it as self-serving. I want my career and my band to be employed. So I take care of business.”

Botti attributes much of his success to good karma and feels the same super success could happen to anybody given the right circumstances and connections.

“There are so many, many talented people in music and the difference is a couple of people opening doors for you and a couple strokes of really good luck,” he explains. “Stars aligning. Right place, right time. All those clichés. But man is it true.

“I just look at my life and if I had made the decision to have a family in my 30s or not made the decision to go on Columbia Records 18 years ago because they opened so many doors for me or not made the decision to join Sting’s band in 1999, who ultimately opened all the doors.

“You define your life by your priorities, and I made certain things my priority that certainly have helped me so much. There are a zillion people if put in the right place would have done the same thing. Do I feel every moment every day grateful? Absolutely.”

Indeed, Botti is quite modest, self-effacing and gracious about his incredible success.

Propelling that success were two transcendent musical figures in Sting and Paul Simon.

Connections of that magnitude are priceless. Connections, whether it’s in the business or the entertainment or music realm, are invaluable building blocks. Much like connective tissue in the body gives shape to organs and increases flexibility.

“I worked together a couple times with Sting,” Botti explains. “But his very first pitch to me was at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel in London in a very posh bar there. At the time I was signed to Verve Records. At the time I had had three No. 1 hits on smooth jazz radio. My career was happening.

“He said to me, ‘Chris, if you leave your career for a few years I guarantee you I will break the sound of your trumpet to the world and most of those people won’t be jazz fans.’

“To show you what kind of hiccup it started, Verve dropped me because they thought I wasn’t caring enough about my career. In hindsight, it was tenfold the opposite. In their defense, they thought I would just wither away as a sideman.

“What happened over the years still to this day is that Sting and I became as close as you can come to being with someone. They’re like family to me. It was what happened after I left that tour in 2002 that cultivated the space for me to launch my career.

“Sting got me to be the opening act on his world tour in 2004. It was an incredible opportunity. We played a bunch of shows in New York at the Beacon Theatre and there was someone in the audience who thought oh my God my friend Oprah would love this guy. Two weeks later we were on the Oprah Winfrey show. Again leading back to Sting. My career went boom overnight from Oprah.”

The karma that is Sting kept on giving.

“All my PBS specials Sting has been on. When you have Sting on your show, it’s easier to get someone like Josh Groban or Yo-Yo Ma. I can never, ever repay what Sting has done for me. What he has done for me has been magical to my career and me personally.”

Before Sting and Oprah strapped a rocket launcher to Botti’s career, Paul Simon was at the launch pad.

“Paul Simon was the first nod that I got from someone,” Botti says. “I was 28 when I joined his band. I stood on that stage for two years next to (saxophonist) Michael Brecker with Steve Gadd playing drums. That was some heavy company to be around.

“I learned so much from Paul, who respects and reveres side musicians. Sinatra valued that. He had Buddy Rich and Count Basie in his band. The great bandleaders value that. Sting values that. Eric Clapton values that. Some want the best behind them. Paul always wanted the best behind him. He let people shine at certain points. I learned that from Paul and Sting.

“Sting used to say all the time, ‘The brighter the people behind me shine, the better light I’m in.’”

Not surprisingly, Botti surrounds himself with some of the best musicians in the music industry, proving himself a gracious bandleader by spotlighting every member of his dynamic band.

Playing with Sting was the initial impetus to Botti expanding from strictly playing smooth jazz to spanning genres. And then there was then-Columbia Records president Don Ienner.

“The stars lined up for me with Don Ienner,” Botti explains. “I didn’t make a conscious decision to transition from smooth jazz with my albums of songbooks. I didn’t view it as a transition. Having a record company like Columbia helped. Don Ienner said don’t worry about radio formats. Just make a record you want to hear.

“It sort of was decided for me. Where am I going to be successful? What is going to work for me? Then boom, it hit. Then Oprah. You just never know. When you can put together a record that makes a statement of who you are, you are giving yourself an honest shot at appealing to an audience. Sometimes when it’s not working over here, you take the grill over there.”

Besides his extraordinary solo career accompanied by his great band, Botti has been a superlative A-list pop accompanist for years.

You would think that performing with such a variety of artists would require more prep work than someone studying to be a brain surgeon. Not so.

“There is zero prep work,” he explains. “It’s based on how you get along. You kind of know before you go in the room. I know what I’m going to do with someone like Barbra Streisand before I do it. Because we like the same sort of music.

“Someone like Steven Tyler, someone might ask what is Chris doing on stage with Steven Tyler? I knew him socially. That’s what happened. I just called him up and winged it with him.

“Someone like (Andrea) Bocelli or Yo-Yo Ma or Streisand or Sting I know we value the same things … a lyrical kind of music, a melodic kind of music, a sophisticated kind of music, an adult kind of music.”

A-ha! Chris Botti’s kind of music, a sound so comforting that his audiences never sweat anything because his trumpet hydrates their spirits.

Indeed, the sound of his horn soothes the sunlight of our serenity and hauls scowls from faces.

“There is an Italian phrase bel canto,” he says. “It means sing lyrically through your horn. I like that kind of music. That’s why I don’t have to prep for Streisand or Bocelli or Groban because we hold that bel canto, that lyricism dear.

“It’s how the music frames the trumpet, which is equivalent of the voice in pop music. I try to frame the trumpet in a very lyrical, voice-like fashion. The shape of the melodies I write are very lyrical, not as angular as in other types of music. I try to give them a vocal quality, though I don’t sing myself. So the trumpet is my outlet.

“On an album you have to bring to the audience something that is beautiful. But when you play live, we have to show chops and muscular tendencies.”

Speaking of albums, Botti, who hasn’t released one since Impressions in 2012, finally will be doing another.

“What happened is that the record business is basically over,” he explains. “I was watching that. I just signed finally with Blue Note Records, the place to be for jazz artists. I will have a new record out this year, either in the summer or fall.”

In the interim, the allure of the road always beckons. And when the road leads him to Berks Jazz Fest, he’s bringing tenor saxophonist Andy Snitzer along.

“We’re going to be there with Andy, who is from your neck of the woods (Philadelphia),” Botti says. “He’s in my band now and it’s been awesome to have him. So he’s going to be our special guest and that’s going to be great.”

By the way, Snitzer also has a melodic style.

What did you expect playing with Chris Botti? Boogie-woogie meets heavy metal?

Trump’s mind takes flight when he says the Continental Army took over the airports

Perhaps the president’s teleprompter did go kaput during his Fourth of Trump Wikipedia history lesson Thursday night when he uttered the infamous words:

“The Continental Army suffered the bitter winter of Valley Forge, found glory across the waters of the Delaware, and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown. Our Army handled the air, it rammed the ramparts. It took over the airports.”

Evidently, George Washington was ahead of his time, covering all the bases just in case King George III beat the Wright Brothers to manned flight.

Now we all have our brain farts. But a guy who occupies the White House should have known that planes were not yet flying during the Revolutionary War.

Apparently, Trump’s mind went kaput as well.

In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, Barack Obama said during his 2008 presidential campaign that he had visited 57 states with one left to go.

I don’t know about you, but I miss George Washington.

Phillies hope to ride Harper’s ferry to greatness

Bryce Harper now is a permanent fixture on the Philadelphia skyline, just as the sun becomes a molten fingernail of light on the daily horizon above Billy Penn’s Phillies hat.

It only took only 117 days for Harper to squeeze out a mammoth 13-year, $330 million contract from the Phillies, making his net worth bigger than Venezuela’s.

Amazingly, it’s a team-friendly deal because by spreading the money over so many years, the Phillies will have enough cap space to lure other free agents through the years.

Hopefully one of them is Mike Trout, the Jersey boy, fanatical Philadelphia Eagles fan and the best baseball player on the planet who toils in obscurity with the Angels.

Trout, unless he signs a contract extension with Los Angeles, will become a free agent in 615 days.

Harper and Trout in the same Phillies lineup would be vintage Dynamic Duo horsepower … sort of like Ruth and Gehrig with the Yankees, Mantle and Maris with the Yankees, Mays and McCovey with the Giants, Canseco and McGuire with the Athletics, and Zonca and Zielinski as Reading Eagle sports columnists.

The defense didn’t rest in the Super Bowl

So everybody thinks this year’s Super Bowl sucked, right?

If you judge it through the prism of the current age’s offensive-centric metrics, it did.

But if you go old school, when football was a mite more Neanderthal in approach, it was a clinic in defensive brilliance.

The Patriots won the game but their and the Rams’ defense were amazing in shutting down two of the most prolific offenses in the NFL this season.

Today, the defense rests.

Apparently President Trump has spent too much time in the heat

President Trump was on “60 Minutes” last evening to present The World According to Donald Trump, which is remarkably different from the world the rest of us inhabit.

Trump now denies denying climate change, backing off on his oft-repeated claim that global warming is a hoax.

Is our president suddenly sprouting some smarts?

Sadly, no. He then said that climate change could very well go back.

No chance in hell.

Long-term average global temperatures have moved in one direction the last 115 years: upward. The rise of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the Industrial Revolution already has led to more intense wildfire seasons and the melting of Arctic sea ice.

The National Climate Assessment report on science approved by the White House in November found unequivocally that climate change will not reverse itself.

Just a thought, but wouldn’t it be awesome if climate change could reverse itself as easily as Trump reverses himself?

The 11th commandment: Protect the children, not the predators

A memo to the pope, cardinals, archbishops and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church working behind a mushroom cloud of incense to protect the institution and the predators instead of the victims of sexual abuse.

Jesus in Mark 9:42: “And whosoever shall offend one these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the sea.”

It is way past time to mute the howl of the wolf and amplify the bleat of the lamb.


Pathetic Trump rolled over by Putin

The Trump-Putin summit Monday was an unmitigated disaster for America.

Our president disgraced himself and our country.

Donald Trump cowered instead of confronted. He deflected instead of being definitive. He should have taken to task Russian president Vladimir Putin for attacking our democratic process.

Instead, he was weak and subservient.

The world may never know what the two said behind closed doors — neither can be trusted to speak the truth — but the subsequent news conference left no doubt that Putin was the dominant one.

He was by turns commanding and confident as he stood side-by-side with Trump, artfully mixing in occasional expressions of boredom or bemusement. Virtually unchallenged by Trump, he asserted that Moscow has “never interfered” in an American political contest and would not do so in the future.

There were almost too many ignoble moments to count in a news conference in which Trump disparaged the media, Democrats, an investigation led by one of his nation’s most esteemed lawmen that has produced more than 30 indictments, including a dozen against Russian military intelligence — while giving Putin the benefit of the doubt for his “extremely strong and powerful” denial of any interference in U.S. elections.

Trump also defied the unanimous conclusion of all U.S. intelligence agencies by saying “I don’t see any reason” to believe that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic computer servers. The indictments against the 12 Russians made public Friday offered extensive detail of the Russian penetration of not only those servers, but of state websites and computers handling voter registration.

With Putin standing beside him, Trump called the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller that produced those indictments “a disaster for our country.”

No, Mr. President. You are.


It’s a mad, mad world

I have not posted on my world-famous Zeke Blog, the font of superlative prose and the zenith of humor, for sometime because I’ve been busy (1) searching for Godot, (2) wondering why all things are LeBron, (3) speculating why the impish Duchess Meghan would dare fancy a scandalized off-the-shoulder dress (how sinfully sordid!), (4) sending spy drones over Canada in preparation for a possible invasion, and (5) figuring out how Justin Trudeau and not Kim Jong Un is Bad Guy No. 1.

Speaking of folks named Kim, who has the bigger ass — Jong Un or Kardashian?