Trumpeter-composer Chris Botti

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The accomplished musician talks about winning a Grammy this year for his CD, “Impressions,” and his versatility in both jazz and pop.

Trumpeter Chris Botti has fused jazz and pop styles in establishing himself as one of the innovative figures of contemporary music. His versatility is evident in his collaborations with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Paul Simon, Sting, Vince Gill and many of the world's leading orchestras. He's also had four #1 CDs on Billboard's jazz albums chart. The Portland, OR native started playing at a young age and, inspired by hearing Miles Davis, committed to the trumpet and performed professionally while still in high school. After attending Indiana University, Botti moved to NY to continue crafting his skills. This year, he won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.


Tavis: Since his 2004 debut, trumpeter Chris Botti has had four number one albums on “Billboard’s” jazz listings, establishing himself as one of the world’s top-selling jazz artists, with more than three million albums sold now.

His latest CD is called “Impressions.” Over the years he’s worked with everybody from Jill Scott to Sting to Yo-Yo Ma to Joni Mitchell and Barbra Streisand.

His inspiration for playing the trumpet – guess who? Miles Davis. Chris says that the instrument is one of the most difficult to play – I believe him – physical, demanding, and frustrating. Of course it’s not frustrating for those of us who love to listen to his work. So here now, a cut from “Chris Botti in Boston.”

[Video of musical performance]

Tavis: So tell me more about why the trumpet.

Chris Botti: Boy, the decision I made when I was a kid to choose the trumpet or to really – first of all it was the power of television. I saw Doc Severinsen on TV with the suit and the horn, and I was like wow, that’s cool.

A couple of years later after that I had a good band director that gave me a Miles Davis record.

Tavis: Right.

Botti: I remember just to this day the beautiful introduction of “My Funny Valentine” by Herbie Hancock.

Tavis: Right, sure.

Botti: Then in comes Miles’ trumpet sound. It was so radically different from all the other trumpet players that I had heard, Maynard or Louis Armstrong, that played the instrument with such joy and kind of arc, and Miles made it this personal, kind of haunting, brooding sort of spectacle, and it touched me.

I felt that that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t think about all this. I didn’t think about a career. I just knew I wanted to play the trumpet, literally, for my entire life. It was that powerful.

I set out to practice five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 hours a day as the years went on.

Tavis: I’m still stuck on your Doc Severinsen comment. He was a great horn player. Why you liked his suits, I do not know.

Botti: Well, you know, but I –

Tavis: That’s for another – (laughter) for those who remember “The Tonight Show” and those crazy outfits that Doc Severinsen – I love him, but those outfits were a little wild.

Botti: Now on stage I’m a little more casual today, but I’m on stage and I wear suits exclusively on stage primarily because recently, about eight years ago, I ran into Doc at LAX.

Tavis: Right.

Botti: Doc came up to me and said, “Chris, I’ve been following your career, I love your playing. You’re so fantastic. Wear a suit every time you go on stage.”

Tavis: Right.

Botti: I thought that was very good advice. So now every time I hit the stage I always think of Doc.

Tavis: Back in the day, people used to actually get dressed up to go out, and if you didn’t get dressed up, at least the artist thought – like Tony Bennett. That guy never comes out – part of his song styling, I think, is imbued, it’s aided and abetted, by the fact that he’s so sharp on stage.

Back in the Motown days, all these – these guys always went on stage, they were clean and sharp. I think it adds something to the whole aura and the aesthetic, but maybe it’s just me.

Botti: Well, I deeply respect my audience, and in doing so I really care about the way I look in front of them, the time that they have. A lot of them are getting babysitters and coming to the shows and spending a lot of money, and I want to present something that has its history in jazz but is also a popular show, and it’s something people can go walk away from being entertained.

Dressing up is part of that, and I think for me, it works for me to pay attention to that.

Tavis: How would you describe your sound? I think you have been around long enough now and have obviously a broad enough fan base, have sold enough records, that your fans know a Chris Botti record when they hear it, but how does Chris Botti define, describe the sound that you’ve created over these years?

Botti: The records are completely different than the live shows.

Tavis: Right.

Botti: The records –

Tavis: Why would you do that?

Botti: Well, I think if you look at Miles Davis, for instance, his two most famous jazz albums weren’t “Live at the Plugged Nickel” or “Nefertiti.”

Tavis: That’s true.

Botti: They were “Kind of Blue” and “Sketches of Spain.”

Tavis: That’s right.

Botti: Which were the most restrain-oriented records, the most lyrical. Probably “Kind of Blue” was the height of lyricism of any record ever made, and if you total up the amount of time that Miles played on those records, it wasn’t nearly as crazy and over-the-top as he got later in other records – “Live in Berlin,” et cetera, et cetera.

I think that if the average person goes to a concert and they see Joshua Bell perform, they stand up on their feet and they go “Fantastic,” when he plays Paganini, and all the violins going like that. But when they go home, what do they listen to?

They listen to Chopin “Nocturnes.” They want something that puts them in a romantic place, but with art behind it. So a lot of my records are that way, but when you come to my show live, I want to bring all the kind of, like, visceral kind of chops that you can bring to the table.

I want people to walk out of there blown away. But when they go home and listen to the record, I want them to hear beauty most of all.

Tavis: So here’s a trivia question for you: What do Chris Botti, since you mentioned him, what do Chris Botti, Joshua Bell, and Tavis Smiley have in common?

Botti: Ah, I know this one.

Tavis: You know this?

Botti: We all went to Indiana. (Laughter) I love it.

Tavis: Indiana University. Shout-out to the Hoosiers of IU.

Botti: Yeah, right on.

Tavis: Just had to kind of weave that in there.

Botti: What dormitory did you live in?

Tavis: I stayed in Reed Hall.

Botti: My man.

Tavis: Yes. (Laughter)

Botti: What floor, do you remember?

Tavis: Fifth floor.

Botti: All right, I was on the third, okay.

Tavis: I was on the fifth floor in Reed.

Botti: I lived in Reed, yup.

Tavis: That’s an amazing story, though. Joshua’s actually teaching there. I think he does some teaching there now.

Botti: Yeah, well, when I met Josh – he’s a few years younger than me, but I remember him, this 16-year-old kid pulling up in a Porsche convertible, and he was all that then. (Laughter)

A fantastic guy and a great, great, musician. Now we’ve become a lot friendlier than I kind of knew him when I was in college. But Indiana, although it’s not the most go-to conversational piece when it comes to music – Berkeley, Juilliard – it is the largest music school in America.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Botti: The beauty of it is there’s nothing that goes on in Indiana, so you’d better get your you-know-what (laughter) in the practice room, because you’re not going to go out and hear clubs.

Tavis: Right.

Botti: You’re not going to – there’s no distraction. That’s what I look back on. I was practicing eight, nine, 10 hours a day in Indiana, and I’m so grateful for that time there.

Tavis: I didn’t realize it when I was a freshman and I arrived at IU, I didn’t realize it, but because as you know – this is way inside baseball – because Reed Hall is so close to the music building –

Botti: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: – I didn’t realize that all of these artists, all these future great artists were actually living in my dorm. So Botti’s there and so many other artists have been in that dorm, because they were –

Botti: Yeah.

Tavis: – just going to walk across the street to the music school. But it’s something I look back on now and appreciate, with respect, the distance –

Botti: Absolutely.

Tavis: – in the distance, I should say, the fact that I was around so many artists. It didn’t rub off on me.

Botti: Yeah.

Tavis: I should have kept taking saxophone lessons, or piano lessons. I did both and didn’t stay with it. So that, you and Joshua do not have in common with me. You guys stuck with your craft and became really good at it.

Botti: Right.

Tavis: On this project, you’ve got some great collaborations, speaking of friendships with Joshua. But you’ve got some great collaborations on this new project.

Botti: Yeah. There’s Andrea Bocelli, Herbie Hancock, David Foster, and the great Mark Knopfler. Many people, of course, know him from Dire Straits. I’ve been fortunate enough, I guess maybe if I look back at my career, the one real decision I made that probably aided me more than most is that in 1982, when I moved to New York City for the first time – and I lived in New York for 18 years – it was the first kind of explosion of Wynton Marsalis.

Being a big Wynton Marsalis fan, I really thought that Wynton set up this glass ceiling that all the people that came after Wynton, that play in the same style of Wynton, I thought they’ll never be able to penetrate that ceiling because Wynton’s got it covered. I’m the number one Wynton fan on the planet, so –

Tavis: I’d fight you on that, but go ahead.

Botti: So I’m going to go over here and try to develop my own sound, and one of the ways I did that was to kind of be the trumpet player or the jazz musician that singers go to.

So originally playing in Paul Simon’s band and standing next to Michael Brecker for years on end, and later my big break, being the soloist with Sting, which Branford Marsalis had the role prior to me.

That aided me in so many ways, and so working with singers like Bocelli, like Streisand, has really, really aided me to kind of separate me from the absolutely traditional, straight-up jazz thing.

But taking elements of jazz and making it into this fusion of – not fusion music, but fusion of different genres. Some of it’s classical.

Tavis: Right. Speaking of fusion, great segue. How did it feel the first time you played with Herbie Hancock, given that this is the guy whose piano interlude turns you on?

Botti: Well, of all the crazy pinch-me moments I’ve ever had, probably the number one is a year and a half ago I was invited to the White House and the White House requested that I play “My Funny Valentine,” which was the song that got me into playing the trumpet.

Tavis: And don’t tell me Herbie played piano.

Botti: And Herbie played piano.

Tavis: Oh, come on. (Laughter)

Botti: And they had Herbie there and they requested the song. The funniest thing is you, of course, know Herbie, and if you ever get a chance to meet him, he’s got to be one of the most humble, gracious people on the planet.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Botti: So we get to the, whatever you call it, sound check, and Herbie goes, “How do you want to play the song?” I said, “Herbie, isn’t that like Michael Jordan saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’ No. You just go there. I’ll throw you the ball. You just play. You invented the thing. I’ll play along.”

So it was fun to play for – and there were four presidents there. It was the president of China and of course the Obamas, the Clintons, and the Carters, and their spouses as well.

In the audience was Barbra Streisand, which made us kind of talk about doing a tour together. So all that kind of (makes noise) in one night, but laying that song with Herbie was the thrill of a lifetime.

Tavis: If my numbers are correct here, Ms. Streisand, famous for not doing so many shows these days.

Botti: Yeah.

Tavis: But if my numbers are correct she’s done about 100 shows in five years, and you’ve done 20 of those.

Botti: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s a pretty high percentage.

Botti: It’s “show business,” and so when you meet someone and they go, “You know what, we really should do something together,” sometimes it just turns into a lunch.

But we really went out on the road and I did 20 shows with her, and she’s recorded since 19 – well, for the last 50 years. She’s recorded, she’s done 100 live concerts and I’ve done 20 of them, and you know what?

I’ve got to tell you – she’s brilliant and she’s iconic, but more so than that she doesn’t use the in-ear monitor, she doesn’t use any auto-tuning. She stands on the stage with an orchestra behind her. There’s no background dancers and stuff going on underneath. Like so much of popular music is today is about that.

Tavis: When you’re Barbra Streisand, you don’t need all that.

Botti: When you’re Barbra Streisand, you’re singing –

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Botti: – and people are weeping, and it is all working. It’s fantastic.

Tavis: I’m glad you live in L.A., we’re glad to have you here in L.A. But since you mentioned Skain – you mentioned Wynton – New York is the place for that kind of cosmopolitanism, that culture, and I love living in L.A., so I’m not trying to diss my own town.

Botti: Yeah.

Tavis: How does being in L.A. versus New York impact your craft, the surroundings, the collaborations? New York is New York.

Botti: Well first of all, I’m super-lucky because for the last nine and a half years I’ve been on a 300-day-a-year world tour.

Tavis: Right, so you don’t live anywhere.

Botti: It doesn’t ever let up. The place I am most is probably New York.

Tavis: Right.

Botti: We end our year – I’m going to play Carnegie Hall in October, and then we go back to the Blue Note for 42 shows in 21 nights. We’ve done it for the last eight years. We spend all of our Christmas and New Years there.

I love the atmosphere of the city and I love being in both places, and I think it’s great. I think, though, that when you reach a certain level you become an international touring act rather than kind of an editorial of a scene, do you know what I mean?

Like the scene in L.A. or the scene in New York. To me, my scene is they let me play one night a year at the Hollywood Bowl or something like that, and then I’m out. So it’s more of just kind of like fun for me to come to L.A.

Tavis: Yeah, cool. So since you got your horn with you, I’m going to ask you just to play us out with 20 seconds, 30 seconds of something.

Botti: Okay.

Tavis: Before you do that, I’m going to remind people that your latest project is called “Impressions.” That’s the latest project from Chris Botti. I’m going to also thank you for watching our show tonight, and to say good night from Los Angeles, to remind you as always to keep the faith, and to enjoy the playout by Chris Botti

(Live performance by Chris Botti)

Botti: There’s your Miles. (Laughter) (Applause)

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Last modified: August 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm