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A Great Evening with Chris Botti

For my last birthday, my beloved gave me tickets to see jazz trumpeter Chris Botti in concert here in Vancouver, the last Canadian stop on his tour that takes him next to Poland. Middle son Joshua, studying composition in Chicago, saw him a few weeks ago. Kari, Josh, and I have come to the same conclusion: this guy’s good. In fact, he’s likely great.

Botti is pretty widely known now, after ten albums, for his warm, heavily reverbed trumpeting. He’s drawn the most attention for duets with singers as widely disparate as Frank Sinatra, Sting, and Chantal Kreviazuk. Easily slotted into the “smooth jazz” ghetto with such abominations as Kenny G (see Pat Metheny‘s classic estimation of Mr. G’s so-called talent), however, he doesn’t deserve such a fate.

Yes, he used to host a radio show called Chill with Chris Botti—and he has the “FM voice” and quiet wit to do that sort of thing, as the concert showed well. Yes, some of his music does help one mellow out into dreamy semiconsciousness (not a bad thing for music to do, especially for hyper types such as I).

But the boy (he’s two years younger than I am) can play.

I saw Wynton Marsalis recently, and he’s the gold standard for trumpeters in our generation. (I speak as one who used to be a pretty good schoolboy trumpeter with some university training in trumpet performance: Just enough knowledge, that is, to know how very much better these guys are and how very difficult it is to do what they do night after night.) Marsalis is legendary for winning a Grammy Award for classical music and another for jazz in the same year—and then doing it again.

So how does Chris Botti stack up? Very well, thank you.

Botti showed that he can play as high, or higher, and do so longer and sweeter than most trumpeters, including the best. I don’t mean that he matches the acrobatics of the late Maynard Ferguson, who always seemed most comfortable playing above the staff. But in concert he hit lots and lots of notes above high C, rarely squeaking (except on purpose a few times), and maintaining an unearthly golden tone even in that high register.

Botti can also wiggle his fingers fast and to good purpose. A lot of jazz trumpeters, in fact, are shown up by the greater dexterity of the saxophonists, guitarists, and pianists in their bands. But Botti cruised up and down the octaves with intelligent, smooth, and lightning-quick riffs, almost no splintered notes (rare, so rare, in live trumpet performance), and extraordinarily accurate intonation.

Meaning no disrespect to Mr. Marsalis, then, but Chris Botti plays second trumpet behind no one.

It helped that he had a terrific combo with him (as did Marsalis: the big names, of course, attract the best sidemen). Botti’s bassist (and former college roommate) Robert Hurst pulled off the best acoustic bass solo I have ever heard: quick, clear (very hard on upright bass), well intonated (ditto), and interesting (ditto with underlines). Drummer Billy Kilson is a showman, all athleticism and grimaces, but demonstrated amazing awareness of both his drums and his body, pulling off remarkable runs on rims and high hat—and fracturing a couple of sticks in the process. Grammy Award-winner Billy Childs on piano was fast when he needed to be, but impressed even more in subtle chord colours, delicate passages, and, as the veteran he is, nicely staying behind the others when it was their turn to shine. And singer Sy Smith, who is capable of flamboyance, shall we say, demurely played the lady in several beautiful duets.

(The impressive talents of the other band members put Robert Whitfield, a competent enough guitarist, rather in the shadows, which he tried to escape with some silly antics that seemed jarring in such an otherwise classy show. )

Botti and Co. played a generously long concert, and I became more and more impressed with Botti’s stamina. I play the various instruments in the rhythm section as well (drums, piano, bass, guitar), and in my experience only drums takes a real physical toll such that performance quality can decline through sheer muscle fatigue. But wind instruments necessarily tire those small embouchure muscles—at least, they do with normal players. Botti kept up an astonishing routine of blasts, high notes, and riffs right to the end.

Indeed, the acid test came at the very end. As his second encore (the crowd here in normally laid-back Vancouver gave him a standing ovation), he played the Sinatra standard “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” with no microphones on either his trumpet or Childs’s piano while the rest of the band disappeared. The otherwise excellent P.A. had been a bit hard on the piano all night, actually—sometimes making the Steinway grand sound fuzzy—so it could now sing out on its own. But here’s the thing: Botti had to play the last song of a long concert with no electronic help, and particularly no reverb to hide the fraying tone of the tired trumpeter. Botti played superbly: warmly, securely, gently. Wow.

Botti’s latest album, Italia, is going platinum. If you haven’t gotten on the bandwagon yet, get on board. This guy is good, and time will likely tell: great.

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