Everyone is Falling for Chris Botti
Performing at the FirstEnergy Berks Jazz Festival, March 12
by Jonathan Widran
Pumped up about his show at the FirstEnergy Berks Jazz Festival on March 12, Chris Botti’s already-busy career has shot into stratospheric overdrive since he took the stage at this musical extravaganza last spring. For the first time, the popular trumpeter spent nearly all of 2004 on the road with his own band, touring the U.S., Europe and Japan, and opening a series of shows on the North American leg of Sting’s Sacred Love tour. Fueled by two appearances on Oprah—including a performance of “Someone To Watch Over Me” at the lavish wedding of a contest winner—and one on The Today Show in November, When I Fall In Love, Botti’s lush new album of standards, is enjoying the kind of crossover success and sales most smooth jazz artists can only dream of.
Ironically, however, he’s not doing it on the Billboard contemporary jazz charts, where his two previous albums, Night Sessions and A Thousand Kisses Deep, were longtime fixtures in the Top 5. Released in late September, the new recording quickly topped the traditional jazz album sales chart, where it remained at #1 for over two months. Even more exciting, the Oprah appearances created a frenzy which saw When I Fall In Love jump in one week from #146 to #37 on the Top 200 albums chart, the largest single-week’s sales leap of any traditional jazz album recorded by an instrumental artist to be released in the Soundscan era.
Botti is currently reaching an even wider adult audience as the opening act for pop superstar Josh Groban’s current winter tour, which began Jan. 25 and has included dates at Madison Square Garden and Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The trumpeter’s date at Berks is sandwiched between Groban gigs in New Orleans and Oklahoma City. Though he makes time on the tour bus to find sanity amid his obsessions with yoga and chess, it’s been really difficult to squeeze in dating time with Today Show host Katie Couric—whom Botti has been seeing since they met in November at a birthday party for Al Roker just before the musician appeared on the popular morning show.
“It’s okay to mention that I’m seeing Katie, but I’d rather not focus so much on my personal life…not that I have much time for one,” Botti laughs. “All of these things have increased my profile, but really the only thing that’s different in my life is that people on the street recognize me more. But I’ll never be the prima donna type who is changed by all of these things. I’m not some 20-year-old with a first hit single, I’m a 42-year-old jazz musician who has been working very hard, for years, to have this career. When this kind of success hits, it’s really flattering, but I’m just more grateful than anything else. Okay, maybe being #1 on Amazon ahead of U2 was pretty cool. But honestly, the best part is being able to keep my band on the road almost full-time. That’s the dream of any working musician.”
Typical of Botti’s keen ability to keep his art and the hype surrounding it—which includes People Magazine recently listing him among its 50 Most Beautiful People––completely separate, he gives much of the credit for the album’s appeal to the vision of Donny Ienner, president of Sony Music. Rather than make an album similar to A Thousand Kisses Deep or any other in Botti’s growing catalog, Ienner suggested the concept of intimately recorded standards with the London Session Orchestra. The label undertook a massive financial risk, which Botti estimates as three times the budget of previous efforts.
When I Fall In Love finds the trumpeter beautifully interpreting such classics as “What’ll I Do?,” “My Romance,” “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “One For My Baby,” in addition to the more modern pop standard “No Ordinary Love” by Sade. The collection also features “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets,” sung and co-written by Botti’s old pal Sting. Botti had a wonderful time doing sessions at Capitol Studios—his favorite in the United States—and at London’s Air Lyndhurst Hall, which is legendary Beatle producer George Martin’s studio. And unlike pop-oriented albums that can sometimes take months to plan, record and mix, When I Fall In Love took about nine days to record and only five to mix. It was released only a month after it was mastered.
“There’s a fresh, fast and immediate quality to a live-in-the-studio recording that creates a magic all its own,” says Botti. “What’s funny is that, even though on the surface this project seemed at first like a risky career detour, the material I’m playing and the moody approach I’m taking are really closer to my heart than the lighter pop I usually do. It’s all ballads, but some of my playing is more acrobatic than I’ve ever done. I feel like I’m in the neighborhood of my idol, Miles Davis, who made a lot of live-in-the-studio jazz records like this.
“Donny just told me to make the most musical record I could, and trusted me and (producer) Bobby Colomby without any interference,” he adds. “He wanted the music and the packaging to have a timeless quality to it, those were the parameters. We had great freedom, and since I didn’t have to write any of the songs, I could focus my neuroses on practicing each song like crazy to make it my own. We did 20 songs, and 13 made the cut. I tried out tunes like ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ but I wasn’t capturing it properly, so I didn’t do it. The best part was concentrating on the trumpet and not having to worry about the electronic bells and whistles. It was simple, elegant and the label loved it.”
It’s a good sign of things to come when the label brass, the artist, producer and well known guests like Jeff Lorber and Brian Bromberg—who co-produced “No Ordinary Love” with Colomby–– love what they hear. But in the pop culture of America, nobody plays tastemaker like Ms. Winfrey, whose much sought-after stamp of approval can turn good into gold.”
Botti explains that jazz publicists are always pitching these types of projects to top programs like Oprah and The Today Show, and it just so happened that the winner of Oprah’s dream wedding contest was a fan.
“My real break came when, two hours before I was set to perform at the TV wedding, Oprah listened to my CD in her dressing room,” he adds. “She flipped for it, and then suddenly couldn’t say enough about me. She wanted to book me on a regular segment of her show almost immediately, but my band was doing an extended European tour. We literally left Europe and flew to Chicago for one day, then flew back. I played ‘When I Fall In Love,’ and that, combined with her enthusiasm for the music, really resonated with her audience. It was a bold move for her to have an instrumental artist on her show. Our culture’s big stars are all pop singers and movie actors, so maybe what I got to do will open the doors for other worthy musicians. Imagine the elevated consciousness of America if the country had a chance to listen to more jazz artists this way!”
Much the way Rod Stewart has made a franchise out of his Great American Songbook recordings, Botti anticipates that his next project will be in the same vein as When I Fall In Love, and he says he’d be interested in doing a classical trumpet album someday. No matter what direction he takes, however, he’s most excited by the fact that “I still love playing the trumpet and I really think I’m getting better at it all the time.”
Smooth jazz will always be foundational, however, and if he ever strays too far or gets too big for his britches, the genre’s top artists will surely keep him in line.
“You know, it’s really a challenge when you’re on the road so much to eat right and get enough exercise,” Botti says. “Some folks say to me, ‘Well, you probably get a lot of exercise when you’re onstage,’ but honestly, I don’t. Compared to Dave Koz? Come on! Dave once said to me, ‘Chris, would it kill you to move a little?’ I’ll have to keep working on it.”
Chris Botti is scheduled to perform during the 15th Annual FirstEnergy Berks Jazz Fest on March 12, 7pm, at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center, 136 N. 6th St. in Reading, Penn.
For tickets to this event, log on to www.berksjazzfest.com, or call (610) 898-7298. Botti’s website can be accessed at www.chrisbotti.com.
||Midnight Without You
||Slowing Down the World
||A Thousand Kisses Deep
||When I Fall In Love