That's Entertainment!
Chris Botti Brings His Rollicking Jazz Review to Peachtree City

By Lee Valentine Smith

His records tend to lean toward chilled-out jazz, but Chris Botti's live show is more like an old-school musical review. Running the gamut of styles from straight-ahead traditional jazz to neo-classical to edgy pop and soul, the much-lauded trumpet maestro presides over an evening of dynamic entertainment.

In addition to his catalog of solo releases, Botti has collaborated with a who's-who of internationally known artists. His resume lists extensive stints with Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Frank Sinatra and even the temperamental Buddy Rich.

But no matter the collaborator, the gregarious musician delivers his own signature brand of sophisticated music, a smorgasbord of styles he's developed since he began his musical journey in the third grade. By the age of 12, he'd already dedicated his life to the horn and after college he began releasing albums on Verve and Columbia. Currently signed to Blue Note with a record slated for the new year, Botti is taking his vintage trumpet on yet another leg of his never-ending tour with a show this month at The Fred.

INsite recently spoke with Botti just before soundcheck at the Peace Center in South Carolina.

How's the tour going?

Well it's been 17 years, 250 days a year on. (Laughs) So far, pretty good.

You're on a Never-ending Tour like Dylan.

I've had the chance to do around 45 shows with Bob Dylan. I did twenty as a member of Joni Mitchell's band and twenty or more with Paul Simon and Dylan. And still, to this day, I think Bob Dylan has everything he wants in life but there's still something cool about going from place to place, being a troubadour and playing your stuff, then moving on. And I can relate. Not that I'm an icon but I just love that work ethic.

I saw you with Paul Simon and Dylan at Chastain and then with Joni and Dylan at Georgia Tech.

Oh cool. You know, that Joni show in Atlanta was her birthday and it was the only time we played "Both Sides Now." The next day the band broke up because she went into a freak-out about something.

Let's talk about jazz a little bit. A lot of people lump you into the jazz bin, but it's really hard to categorize your music because stylistically it's all over the place.

I consider myself first a trumpet player. My real connection is with the instrument. So along with that comes hours and hours a day, for the rest of your life, practicing and connecting with the horn. Then comes, 'Well what do you want to do with it?' I am primarily a jazz musician, but I've been able to dip into these other areas because I like the music. I like working with sophisticated pop music people, like Paul Simon or Sting or Streisand or whoever. But I do like doing faux-classical and I like that element of bel canto playing where it's the languid, beautiful stuff. But I also like playing traditional jazz. So I mix all of that in because I like to put together an entertaining show.

Sometimes jazz purists think "entertaining" is a bad thing.

It gets a lot of blowback sometimes, yeah. But if you look at the history of jazz, there's been some super-entertaining musicians. Like Louis Armstrong, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie or Harry James. There've been some people over time that didn't just grab onto the Miles Davis way of turning your back or being more sour to the audience. But everyone has something that makes them tick and over the years I've been able to craft a show that means a lot to me.

Your style is a true fusion of genres but not from the '70s mindset of artists like Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report.

Yeah at the core I'm an improvisor who loves a certain type of singer. Sometimes I like pop singers more than jazz singers. It's funny, I had an awkward moment with Joni Mitchell where I learned more in two minutes than from anyone. Once at a rehearsal in L.A., she just dressed me down.

She doesn't mince words in any situation. What happened?

She stopped the rehearsal and said - she's a Canadian, of course - but she said, 'Chris, to quote an American thing, I'm in the batter's box. You cannot come into the batter's box and just kick me out. You need to move around me and interact, but you can't come in and just throw me out of the game. That's what you're doing right now.' You know a lot of jazz musicians want the singer to scat and then they want it all to themselves; I learned from that how to lean in but not encroach on the singer.

It's part of a musician's personality how they collaborate with fellow artists.

Absolutely! Everything depends on it - how you play, how you treat the audience, how you treat the band or just your own work ethic. All of that comes from your personality.

You're lucky to change up the dynamic of your own band by alternating players.

Exactly. I think my audience appreciates the variety and how the show kinda roller-coasters.

The live show is indeed very different from your recorded work.

My records are made to be more romantic or to take the listener to a more chilled-out place. But when we do a show, I want to bring it. Bring the show business and flash when you need it and then ratchet it down so we can play the beautiful stuff and really tap into people's emotions. It needs to roll around, to play good music and let the audience know that we are really having a good time. But I don't mean it like in a 'Hey, everybody put your hands together' kind of way. I mean we are actually interacting with each other.

That's very old school.

Yeah a lot of younger musicians are coming up and they're all wearing in-ear monitors and attached to a click track. They don't even really look at each other on stage. There's no real conversation going on, everyone's just looking straight ahead and in their own cubical. I don't want to convey that at all. I want the audience to be in it with us and us with them. We try to do that every night.

A savvy audience can tell if the collaboration is genuine. If the players are looking at an iPad and waiting for cues, everyone could just as well stay home.

Yeah I go see a lot of shows and between songs they wait for that click-track to fire up and it's always the drums that kick it off and you know there's computers going on. I don't want to ever do that. We have an ebb and flow. There's no real count-off, someone just starts and then we're going.

You've played with some, shall we say, mercurial artists. Joni taught you a valuable lesson, but how what was it like to work with [notoriously difficult drummer] Buddy Rich?

I always say I left school, did two weeks with Sinatra and then went on the road with Buddy Rich. So it was like the Wide World of Sports: the thrill of victory and then the agony of defeat. I was a naïve, idealistic college kid. To me, jazz was Woody Shaw and George Coleman and Miles and stuff like that. But Buddy wanted a soloist in the band that was like Bix Biederbecke and Harry James. I learned a lot from it though and all the drama he brought. He was an incredible musician but he was a jerk to the musicians he played with, famously. But I learned the value of having a real personality on drums in the band.

After that, working with Paul Simon must've been the direct opposite of enduring Buddy Rich.

Oh yeah. What I got from Paul was learning how to orchestrate a show, the respect he shows to musicians and how he showcases all the great players. Then I got that tenfold from Sting. So now I point out the strengths of the members of my band while letting the audience in on it. I'm deeply proud to share the stage with my band and I just want everyone to know how great they are.

So your show is more like a jazz and soul review.

Exactly. I want to take great jazz musicians, play lots of different styles of music and have fun. If you go to a U2 show, you pretty much know what you're getting. But a lot of people come to my show and go, 'What is it, just guy and a trumpet?' My job is to show them that it's so much more.

Chris Botti and his band play The Frederick Brown, Jr. Amphitheater on Saturday, August 17. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit amphitheater.org.

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