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?