We all know Sinatra, Paul Simon and Sting. Many of us, however, didn’t know trumpeter Chris Botti until late in 2004. Strange when you think that his first professional gig was with Sinatra; that for five years, starting in 1990, he played the world with Simon; and that he joined Sting as a featured soloist in 1999 and the two have collaborated ever since. He has also performed and recorded with a bevy of other acclaimed artists including Chaka Khan, Andrea Bocelli, Dave Koz, Rod Stewart, Burt Bacharach and Yo-Yo Ma.
In the San Francisco Bay Area for a benefit gig, the unpretentious and exceedingly affable superstar spoke candidly about his success, his music and two distinct segments of his life: pre-Oprah and People magazine — and post-Oprah and People magazine. “Behind every overnight success, there’s 10 years of really hard work,” Botti said. “To the mainstream American public, I just [suddenly] came on the scene. In fact I’d been around for a long, long, long time.”
The turning point in his career came after he was scheduled to play for a wedding on Oprah’s show. Their meeting was “very brief, cordial and lovely, and then she heard my music and became a fan. And then she had us back on the show and, you know, just really handed me the keys to America.”
Adding to the recognition, he was named, in 2004, one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People.” It gave his friends something to tease him about — and his publicist the ammo that was needed to get him on TV. “The reality is that 99 percent of television programs will not have instrumental music on. Period. To make it happen takes something very pop culturish, like the ‘50 most beautiful’ thing. And it’s not something you apply for — those things are given to you as fluke. And you’ve just got to feel really grateful because it opens up doors and those doors are stepping-stones and all of a sudden you’re on the center stage, which is Oprah.”
The recognition meant that Botti, was able to follow his heart with his chart-topping 2004 release, When I Fall In Love, a “beautifully produced, hugely expensive record,” recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra, that had all he wanted by way of “meat, subtlety, nuance and musicianship. A lot of artists want to make edgy records; I want to make beautiful records.”
He had been told that only “an up-tempo thing” with three notes, and that was happy, would sell.
“I did a slow, dark, moody, melancholy record and you know, it’s sold about 100 times more than all those other records, and that feels great.” Almost as great as the ultimate compliment — if you tell him you listened to him perform and cried.
To date the youthful Botti, born in Oregon on October 12, 1962, has released more than nine solo albums.
When I Fall In Love, which sold 800,000 copies in a week, took him out of the “strictly jazz” category, propelling him into what he calls “the lifestyle domain.”
- Ques: People have called you, among other things, a smooth jazz artist. How do you think of yourself?
- Botti: “I’m a jazz musician. The terms people put on me as an artist — how I’m billed — that’s kind of their thing.”
- Ques: What is your vision with your music?
- Botti: “I think the thing that links all my CDs is the hypnotic, relaxed quality to the music. Each record is different and yet the intention is to kind of chill out the listener. Making beautiful records — that’s been my goal my whole career.
- “A record like When I fall in Love, recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra, is so expensive to make that record companies would never give that opportunity to a first-time or second-time recording artist. The thing is, I’d been around for a long time. Finally the record company decides you have enough of a fan base to do something like this. And so, wallah, it was by far the most successful record in years in jazz; in any kind of jazz.”
- “Jazz music is not like pop, where you put out a record and overnight you’re known. Jazz music, if you’re lucky enough to be the one guy every decade, or every five years, to be a crossover artist, then you can be sure you’ve already been saddled with a whole lot of years when you weren’t.”
- Ques: What do you mean by crossover?
- Botti: “Crossover in music generally refers to a format that isn’t accepted by the general public except for the artist who crosses into the domain of the general public. For instance, probably not everyone in this lobby knows a lot about classical music, but probably everyone here knows Yo-Yo Ma. He’s therefore a crossover artist. Most people don’t know anything about jazz, but a lot of people know about me. Back in the days of Motown, ‘crossover’ meant the white community accepted a black artist.”
- Ques: What would you say Sting did for you?
- Botti: “I was the soloist in his band for four years and we’ve remained closely linked as kind of musical collaborators. He’s sung on my records. He’s written for me. I’ve toured the world with him. He’s my best friend and, you know, for a lot of different reasons, he was responsible for breaking my sound.”
- Ques: Breaking your sound? What does that mean?
- Botti: “Just that, you know — like, through him I had my first break. So ‘breaking me’ means giving me my first exposure.”
- Ques: Are you still connected with Sting?
- Botti: “Absolutely. We talk all the time and work together. I opened him with my band in 2004 for about four months, in the U.S. and in Europe. He’s always been a great lover of jazz music and had great jazz musicians. Branford Marsalis, you know, became a household name because of Sting.”
- Ques: And what did you think of Oprah? I mean, what defines her for you?
- Botti: “It’s a difficult question to answer because you could use all the adjectives. She’s charismatic, she’s super-intelligent, she has a way with people that makes them feel like she’s present in the conversation. You feel engaged, and that’s a gift. I think it translates onscreen, with her show. You feel she’s being honest. And she’s engaging. And besides that, there are the things she’s done for me specifically.”
- Ques: What did being named one of the 50 most beautiful people by People magazine do for you personally and professionally?
- Botti: “It didn’t do anything for me personally except give my friends something to tease me about. The thing most people don’t understand, however, is that in today’s climate, you don’t sell records by being on the radio. There’s really only one medium that sells them and that’s television. And the reality — and most people in the United States don’t know this — is that 99 percent of the television programs will not have instrumental music on, period. Not Letterman, not Leno, not Good Morning America, none of them. Even a guy like Yo-Yo has real difficulty.
- “Few people in the U.S. have any concept of how difficult it is to be exposed — to have your art exposed — as an instrumentalist. The way it goes is, there’s movie star, television star, and then rock star, and everything else is below that.”
- Ques: Your mom was a classically trained pianist. I read that you learned from her, and that your family is in Portland. Do you go there often?
- Botti: “I’m not so great at getting home. I’m always on the road. I try to make it back a day a year.”
- Ques: Where do you live now?
- Botti: “I don’t live anywhere. I only live in hotels. I have no residence.”
- Ques: OK. So what is your schedule like?
- Botti: “Get up. Go to the airport. Get on a plane. Fly. Do a concert. Get up. Go to an airport. Do a concert … ”
- Ques: How many a week?
- Botti: “You know, I think we’ll do a couple of hundred more dates this year and the rest of the time is promotion, and recording. We might fly to New York and the day we land, start five nights in a club. It’s insane. And it’s really, really tough. And with the self-obsessed quality of your life, it’s impossible to have a family.
- But I’m not complaining. You know, the opportunity I’ve been given in the last few years is so great and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
- Ques: So, how do you maintain or withstand the schedule?
- Botti: “I’m not very good at it. To be honest with you, I get grouchy and everyone gets sleep-deprived. But you’ve just got to be thankful. Ultimately, we’re really lucky, really lucky.”
- Ques: You look pretty fit.
- Botti: “When I can, I do my yoga or get in a yoga class.”
- Ques: What’s the best thing anyone’s ever said about you?
- Botti: “That’s a hard question. I think it’s when people are kind of — if someone comes up to me after a concert and says they cried after one of the performances, that’s my favorite thing. Because, you know, a lot of jazz musicians kind of assess a performance by who gets up and who gets dancing. For me that doesn’t do anything. That’s not a key to an emotional connection. That’s a key to a beat.
- “I like the emotional connection, like the one I have when I listen to Miles Davis or Keith Jarrett. It’s kind of like when you can find a window into that person’s touch on their instrument, or the feeling of their heart coming through their instrument. And that usually happens with slower music. The faster stuff and the stuff that’s driven by a beat, or that’s all flashy, doesn’t do anything for me. And I don’t think the trumpet sounds great in a chipper environment. It’s at its best when at an emotional level. When it’s bright and happy, you have a marching band and that’s not very sexy to me at all.
- “Before Miles Davis came along, you had a bunch of people like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie projecting the trumpet to the back of the room. Sort of like, you know, in another type of life, it’s the difference between an opera singer and a Broadway singer. A Broadway singer stands at the front of the stage and — they’re trying to project their instrument to the back of the room. Sinatra would sing and it was a much more intimate things. He used that intimacy to his benefit and to me, that’s much more appealing. You sort of homogenize your voice when you project to the back of the room.”
- Ques: I read online that you did something with Sinatra.
- Botti: “My first professional gig. I dropped out of college and went and played with him on the road for a couple of weeks. It was the first money I made. It was terrible. The money, I mean. But for me, a college dropout, it was a thrill. I’m such a Sinatra fan. He made great records. A lot of people don’t see that.”
- Ques: What brought you here today?
- Botti: “I have a booking agent and a manager. He’s a genius. He books the best.
- “You know, when you start getting somewhere in your life in music, you sort of realize that you need to delegate. You have to surround yourself with great people and let them do their job.
- “And there’s another thing. If I meet a young musician who plays all the instruments, it’s not impressive to me. I like it when they listen to one thing so passionately that it encompasses everything. Then I think this guy or girl has a shot at being something in music. Music isn’t about spreading yourself all around.
- “So what I guess I am saying is, it takes huge effort and energy to tame the trumpet. I’m going to finish with you and then I’m going to go upstairs to practice. Every day since I was 9, it’s been that way. You walk away from the trumpet for a day if you’re traveling and it will kick you in the butt. So when your career starts happening, there’s a bunch of things you have to take a deep breath and delegate; like having a great business manager and a great lawyer and a great support team and a great booking agent so you can go and do what you need to do.”
- Ques: So you practice every day. For how long?
- Botti: “I played strong last night and I’m getting over stomach flu. Maybe I’ll play an-hour-and-a-half tonight. You can play the piano or drums and take days off, but you can’t do that with trumpet or French horn.”
- Ques: How come a pianist can take a day off?
- Botti: “It’s not nearly as physical. Now if you’re Arthur Rubinstein, you can’t take a day off, or if you’re the top Chopin player in the world — that’s a whole different animal. That’s like being Carl Lewis or Lance Armstrong.
- “With the trumpet, you can never do it. I don’t know why it is, but the instrument, or the way the muscles kind of hold between your physical body and the muscles in your mouth — they just deteriorate so rapidly. It’s weird. And the instrument will feel foreign. And when you miss on a trumpet, playing delicately, it’s so embarrassing. With the drum, it’s not as glaring if you screw-up.”
- Ques: What would you like people to know about you?
- Botti: “You mean like a lifestyle? I don’t know. To me the most important thing is that the people check out the music and records and that people know that I put a ton of energy and effort into trying to make records that are interesting. A lot of people today — and it’s very similar to the movie industry — they want to make records and movies that cater to the lowest common denominator. And we were very successful in making a record that has meat and subtlety and nuance and musicianship and all the things in the past that had been overlooked because (of the attitude) ‘it won’t sell.’
- “My whole career I’ve been told you need an up-tempo thing and it can only have three notes and you have to make it happy, because that’s what sells. That’s the biggest challenge I’ve had to overcome. I guess I want people to know that I’ll continue to make records that have some sort of opinion and point of view and meaning and thoughtfulness.”
© Wanda Hennig, 2009